By Luke Popovich
For any remaining doubters seeking evidence of climate change, look no further than Washington, D.C.  Here in the marbled nation’s capital, far from shrinking glaciers, is irrefutable evidence of climate change—only the change here is in the political climate.  And it’s not the change we were led to expect with the arrival of a more liberal government and an emboldened green movement.  The headlong advance toward climate change legislation featuring an ambitious cap and trade program for all sources of greenhouse gas emission is now in full-scale retreat.

A retreating army, dropping their weapons as they run, is never a pretty sight.  This one certainly isn’t—however satisfying some may find the sight of greens dropping any pretense that Congress will pass a comprehensive cap and trade plan this year.  Sudan has a better chance of hosting the winter Olympics than greens have of persuading Congress to pass the House bill or the Senate version.

Equally startling was how quickly the tide of battle shifted.  As recently as last fall the prospects for legislation in this Congress were still alive, if growing more feeble as the health care debate ate up the political calendar and the political will for yet another contentious issue.  By the time cap and trade became known as “cap and tax,” its prospects dwindled to near zero.  Then came in quick succession a series of high-profile political races all won by Republicans who campaigned against costly schemes for controlling carbon emissions, culminating in the shocking victory of Sen. Scott Brown for Sen. Ed Kennedy’s former seat.  Add highly publicized criticism of the science behind global warming known as “climategate,” and the end was near for comprehensive climate legislation.

That this took place against the backdrop of an exceedingly weak economy and high unemployment probably made talk about climate change irrelevant for most Americans.  That didn’t stop greens in and outside the administration from talking about it.  But they could never convincingly explain how raising energy prices in a recession would stimulate job growth.  Greens have as much credibility talking about job creation as Oscar winners have talking about energy molecular biology.

What happened next was probably more surprising.  Recall that greens had a secret weapon:  if Congress wouldn’t control CO2 with legislation, the EPA would control it with regulation.  With the proverbial gun of regulation held to the head of Congress, even some industry lobbyists urged mining companies, utilities and manufacturers to cut a deal.  Instead, a strange thing happened.  Congress appears to have disarmed the regulators and turned the gun on them, threatening to blow a hole in the EPA’s regulatory authority.  Bills pending in both Houses of Congress would either delay or stop altogether the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon emissions from coal-based power plants and other sources.  “Not only are we not going to regulate carbon this year,” Congress seems to be saying, “neither are you.”

Not surprisingly, Republicans led this counter attack.  Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) used a little known law to garner 40-plus signatures on a resolution of disapproval—in which the Senate can strip the EPA of its carbon control authority altogether.  The feisty senator, the other female political dynamo from Alaska, can run around the Environment Committee entirely by persuading a simple majority of her colleagues to sign her petition.  She has several months to seek supporters before calling for a vote.

Another shot across the EPA’s bow came from across the aisle.  Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s bill would delay the EPA’s carbon regulations for two years in order to, in his words, “safeguard jobs, the coal industry and the entire economy as we move toward clean coal technology.” The patrician West Virginian, who is no tea party climate denier, showed that Republicans weren’t the only ones worried about the impact on the economy.

At the first sign of this determined assault, the EPA staged a tactical retreat, quickly agreeing to hold off regulating power plants for six months.  But the maneuver bought little advantage as the two-front attacks on the EPA’s regulatory authority seemed to embolden critics and stiffen the spines of fence sitters tired of being pushed around.  The coal industry greeted both Senate initiatives cheerfully.  “They demonstrate a bi-partisan recognition that Congress, not the EPA, is the proper place to address greenhouse gas emissions,” said NMA President and CEO Hal Quinn.

It was premature at press time to say which approach—voiding the EPA’s authority or delaying it—would prevail.  A defiant Sen. Murkowski said a delay, however helpful, may not give Congress enough time to pass a bill and develop the clean coal technologies we need.  “We must set this delay in stone,” she said.  Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said, “The EPA’s backdoor energy tax is a bad idea today and will still be a bad idea two years from now.”  NMA agreed that hitting the reset button would be a clearer way to avoid a regulatory train wreck than hitting the pause button.  Both approaches could face a presidential veto, but the message they would communicate to the White House is powerful nonetheless: cap and trade is not a fight you will win.

As the smoke clears the battlefield, the desire to address climate change still stands.  A new senate plan now under discussion jettisons the economy-wide, one-size-fits all approach in favor of phasing in different carbon reductions for each sector of the economy.  But for now at least, no more Rube Goldberg contraptions for allocating carbon allowances among competing industries.  No decisions needed on whether a rainforest in equatorial Guiana offsets the CO2 from a plant expansion in Gulfport, Miss.  Who says Congress is hopeless?

Popovich is a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, the industry’s trade group based in Washington, D.C.