Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) Clean Air/Climate Change Act

Posted on April 19, 2007

Madam President, today I introduce legislation to reduce air pollution and the threat of global warming by enacting strict standards on the four major pollutants from powerplants. I send the legislation to the desk and ask it be introduced. Madam President, I am pleased that Senator Joe Lieberman, of Connecticut, who chairs a key environmental subcommittee, will be the bill's lead cosponsor, so it will be known as the Alexander-Lieberman Clean Air Climate Change Act of 2007. It will establish an aggressive but practical and achievable set of limits on four key pollutants. This is a little different sort of clean air and climate change bill, and I would like to talk for a few minutes about exactly what it does and why we are doing it this way. Most of us in the Senate can be measured by where we come from. I come from the Great Smoky Mountains. When I go home tomorrow afternoon, after we hopefully start the competitiveness legislation debate, I will go to my home about 2 miles from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. When the Cherokees named the Great Smoky Mountains, which today have become our most visited national park, they were not talking about smog and soot. Unfortunately, today they probably would be. There has been a lot of recent progress, but air pollution is still a serious health problem, causing illnesses from asthma to premature death, and making it harder to attract new jobs. To be specific about that, recently, over the last 20 years, the auto industry has become important to Tennessee. Tennessee was in competition recently for a Toyota plant that nearly came to Chattanooga but went to Mississippi. In the last 25 years, one-third of our manufacturing jobs have become auto jobs. I can remember when there were not any, and I was Governor, and the Nissan plant decided to come to Tennessee in 1980. The first thing I had to do as Governor was to help them go down to the air quality board and get a permit to paint 500,000 cars and trucks a year. That is a lot of paint, and produces a lot of emissions in the area. If Tennessee had not had clean air at that time, that Nissan plant would have been in Georgia. So clean air is not only about our health, although the more we learn about the effects of nitrogen pollutants and sulfur pollutants, the more that we learn that it and mercury are about our health, clean air is also about our ability to attract jobs. So we want to make sure that when Nissan or Toyota or any of the suppliers of any automobile company -- General Motors with a Saturn plant in Tennessee –when they want to look at our State for expansion -- they are not limited by our inability to meet clean air standards. We also have jobs that come from another direction. In Tennessee, tourism is big business. Many people know about Yellowstone in the West, but the Great Smokey Mountains have three times as many visitors as any Western park, nearly 10 million visitors a year, and they come to see the Great Smokies, not to see smog, not to see soot. They want to enjoy it. When I go into Sevierville, Dolly Parton's hometown, and ask the Chamber of Commerce right there next to Maryville where I grew up, what is your No. 1 issue, these conservative Republicans in Sevier County say to me: Clean air. That is what the Chamber of Commerce there says, clean air. So we Tennesseans think clean air is important for our health, because we love to look at our mountains and because of our jobs. I am the chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority Congressional Caucus. I sit on the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee. I am especially delighted that Senator Lieberman, who is the cosponsor of this legislation, not only is on that committee, but he chairs one of the major subcommittees on the Environment and Public Works Committee that has to do with global warming. What we are hoping is that this legislation, which I am about to describe, along with legislation Senator Carper of Delaware is introducing today or tomorrow, will help move along the debate about how we deal with global warming in our country. In the legislation I have presented, the Alexander-Lieberman legislation, we seek to preserve our jobs while we clean the air and preserve the planet. We have a number of concerns in our country, and global warming is only one of those. So I would argue that the provisions we have set out are aggressive, but they are practical and they are achievable. They set schedules for power plants to reduce emissions for sulfur dioxide, for nitrogen oxide, for mercury, and for carbon dioxide. Doing so will relieve some of the worst air-related health environmental problems such as ozone, acid rain, mercury contamination, and global warming. I think it is important to note that one of the differences with this Alexander-Lieberman bill is it proposes carbon caps only on powerplants that produce electricity; it does not propose carbon caps on the economy as a whole. Now, why would we only do that? Well, here are the reasons for that: No. 1, when we talk about global warming and carbon, we are dealing with a huge, complex economy. This country of ours produces and uses about 25 percent of all of the energy in the world. We have businesses that range from the shoe shop to Google to chemical plants. I think we have to be very careful in Washington about coming up with great schemes and great ideas that sound good here but that might not apply to everyone across the country, because everyone across the country has a natural conservatism about the wisdom of those who are in Washington. We could scare them to death with some talk of an economywide global warming bill. So I am more comfortable thinking sector by sector. I want our steps to be practical and cost effective. I do believe a market-based cap and trade system for powerplants makes a lot of sense. Powerplants are the logical place to start with carbon regulation. Powerplants produce about 40 percent of all the carbon in our economy. Powerplants are increasing emissions of carbon at a rate faster than any other large segment in our economy. We have selected in our legislation what we call a market-based cap and trade system to regulate the amount of carbon that is produced. This is not a new idea. The market-based cap and trade system was actually introduced by a Republican administration in which I served in the Cabinet, the first George Bush. It was a part of the Clean Air Act amendments in 1990. It was introduced because we were concerned about the amount of sulfur coming out of powerplants. Basically it created a lot of flexibility for those powerplants. It used a market system. We have now had 15 years experience with it. It has worked very well. It has significantly reduced the amount of sulfur in the air. It has done it in a way that most everyone concedes is the lowest possible cost of regulation. It is a minimal amount of rules from here, a maximum amount of market decisions and individual decisions by individual utilities. So we have had that system in effect since 1990. There has been a similar system in effect for nitrogen. There has been a similar cap and trade system in Europe. We have a lot of experience with cap and trade. So we have elected to use a similar cap and trade market-based system to regulate the carbon coming out of the same smokestacks that sulfur, nitrogen, and mercury come out of. We can already measure the amount of carbon coming out, so we do not have to guess about that. We do not have to invent a new system. We do have to be careful about what the standards are, what the dates are. We want to know what the costs will be to the ratepayers. We want to keep electric rates as low as we possibly can, as well as making the energy clean. But if we are concerned about global warming in this generation, because I think we should be, then powerplants are a good place to start. It is time to finish the job of cleaning the air of sulfur, of too much sulfur, too much nitrogen, and too much mercury. It is time to take the right first step with controlling carbon emissions. It is time to acknowledge that climate change is real, that human activity is a big part of the problem, and that it is up to us to act. Now not only am I glad to be working with Senator Lieberman, who will be the lead cosponsor of this legislation, he, of course, is already a leader in this area and he has an economywide piece of legislation which he introduced. Senator McCain in the last session -- I am not about to try to speak for another Senator, but I think Senator Lieberman is taking the position he would like to see several good trains moving down the track toward the same station in hopes that one of them eventually gets there, and that we can learn from each other. That is the attitude I take with the legislation Senator Carper has described today and that he is introducing today or tomorrow. Senator Carper and I have worked together through two Congresses on four pollutant legislation. A lot has happened since we started working. For example, the Administration, to its credit, through the Environmental Protection Agency, has stiffened requirements for sulfur and nitrogen. I applaud President Bush for that. They are very good requirements. They have also proposed the regulation of mercury for the first time in our country's history. I applaud the EPA for that. So a lot has changed since Senator Carper and I first started. Also we have learned a lot. Senators who do not always have their mouths open learn a lot. We have discovered one of the most difficult areas in fashioning a market-based cap and trade system for sulfur or for nitrogen or for carbon is who pays for it. We called that the allocation system. Senator Carper and I started out with what we called an output system. We thought that sounded pretty good. It would be based upon the amount of electricity you would be putting out. But the more we studied it, he came to a different conclusion and I came to a different conclusion. I came to the conclusion that we should use historical emissions. In other words, we are saying to a utility in the United States: We are about to impose upon you some requirements for cleaning up more sulfur, cleaning up more nitrogen, cleaning up mercury -- for the first time – and regulating the emissions of carbon for the first time, and I understand that is a significant cost. That capital cost will have to be borne in the end by ratepayers. So, in my view, it seems to me that the fairest way to impose that cost would be through what we call the historical allocation system. That is the way we have done it with allowances for sulfur and nitrogen for the last 15 years. In fact, the input or the historical allowance system as the way to pay the bill has been the way it is done almost everywhere, I believe. But there is another way to allocate that is called the output. Senator Carper selected that. There is still a third way to allocate the costs of doing whatever regulation we do, and that is called the auction. A market-based cap and trade system sounds complicated, but it is not so complicated. It basically says to each emitter of one of the pollutants: You have an allowance to emit one ton of that sulfur or of that carbon, and as long as you emit that much, you are okay. If you emit more than that, you are going to have to buy allowances to emit that much more from someone else. So it costs you more. Or if you emit less, you can sell your allowance. Then as the law goes along over the years, 2009 or 2010 to 2015, the amount of pollutants that come down, your allowance total drops down as well. One of the favored proposals mostly -- and especially by many environmental groups -- is an auction of those allowances. Well, I have resisted. I have been careful about the auctions. I have been to a lot of auctions. I know they must have them in Minnesota as well as Tennessee. I have yet to see one where the purpose of the auction was not to get the highest possible price. Well, if I am paying my electric bill down in Memphis, or if I am at Eastman Chemical in east Tennessee or ALCOA trying to keep my electric costs in line, I am not interested in my Senator coming to Washington and having an auction to raise my electric rates to the highest possible price. So also there is the temptation that if you auction off these allowances, and there are a lot of them when we are talking about carbon allowances, many more than when we are talking about sulfur allowances over the last 15 years. They will bring in a lot of money. And whenever you bring in a lot of money, and 100 different Senators and lots of Congressmen know there is a pot of money, they will come up with a lot of ways to spend that money. And where will that money come from? Well, it has got to come from the man or women or family paying the electric bill in Nashville, or Knoxville. So I have been conservative about the use of auctions. Senator Lieberman and I, in this bill, say 75 percent of the allowance comes from historical emissions and 25 percent are sold in an auction. This gets way down in the weeds, as we say. But one of the things that I think may be beneficial from Senator Carper going ahead with his bill, which relies on an output system that becomes a 100-percent auction, and way we go ahead in the Alexander-Lieberman bill with 75-percent input and 25-percent auction, may be that our colleagues will do as we have been doing over the last few months, and spend a little more time understanding allowances and auctions, and we can come to a better conclusion about this. I value greatly my relationship with Senator Carper and respect his leadership in this area. He chairs one of the principal subcommittees on the Environment Committee upon which I serve and the Presiding Officer serves. What I hope is he and I are moving into a new stage of our working relationship on clean air and climate change, and the result of that will be that all of our ideas will be out in front of our colleagues and that it will move the debate along. I would emphasize, we agree, he and I, on a lot more than we disagree on. In fact, I believe on all of the standards and deadlines for meeting those standards for nitrogen, sulfur, and mercury, we agree. We agree there should not be a cap and trade system for mercury because mercury is a neurotoxin, and down in east Tennessee where I live, we do not want TVA buying a lot of allowances so they can emit a lot more mercury, because it doesn't go up in the air and blow into North Carolina, it goes up in the air and comes right down on top of us, for the most part. We don't want that. We don't want that. The more we learn about mercury, the less we want it. We don't have cap and trade for mercury, although we do suggest that for carbon. Climate change has become the issue of the moment. Everybody is talking about it. There are movies about it. The Vice President was here testifying about it. It is not the only issue that faces us that has to do with air pollution. I am more concerned in Tennessee about sulfur, nitrogen, and mercury than I am about carbon. That is why this is a four-pollutant bill. We ought to address all of these at once. I was in this body 40 years ago as a staff assistant working for Howard Baker. I remember very well when Senator Baker, a Republican, and Senator Muskie of Maine, a Democrat, worked together on the committee on which the Presiding Officer and I now serve. They passed the first Clean Water Act and the first Clean Air Act. The Clean Water Act, some people have said, is the most important piece of urban renewal legislation ever enacted because the rivers of America had gotten so dirty, nobody wanted to live on them. The rivers of America are where most of our great cities are. As soon as they were cleaned up, people moved back to the cities and around the rivers. That was 1970 and 1971. It is appropriate to think about that now because Earth Day is coming up this weekend. I can remember Earth Day, which began in 1970. Suddenly the environment, which had been an issue that was reserved for only a few people, became a national craze. It was almost like a hula hoop. Everybody was interested in the environment and recycling. Former Senator Gaylord Nelson was a leader in creating Earth Day. I can remember sitting in a meeting of President Nixon and the Republican leadership in 1970 when I was on the White House staff, and President Nixon was trying to explain to the Republican leaders the importance of environmental issues. It was 8 o'clock in the morning, and they weren't listening very well. It was a new subject. But Gaylord Nelson was doing it. The kids were doing it. People were recycling. The Republican President was talking to the Republican leadership, and Senator Baker, Senator Muskie, and the Congress passed the first Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. Many of us who have lived a while can remember things are better today in many ways. When I was a student at Vanderbilt in Nashville, it was so smoggy in the mornings, you couldn't see downtown. Your clothes got dirty during the day. Things got gradually better. In 1990, when the first President Bush was in office, we passed important Clean Air Act amendments, and the first cap and trade system for sulfur began. What also happened was that we learned more about how damaging these pollutants are to our health. As a result, the standards which we once thought were high seemed low. Knoxville, the biggest city near where I grew up, near the Smokey Mountains, is the 14th most polluted city for ozone. Ozone irritates lung tissue, increases the risk of dying prematurely, increases the swelling of lung tissue. It increases the risk of being hospitalized with worsened lung diseases and triggering asthma attacks. At risk in Knoxville County alone are 176,000 children, 112,000 seniors, 15,000 children with asthma, and 50,000 adults with asthma. Ozone is not emitted directly from tailpipes and smokestacks. The raw ingredients come from coal-fired powerplants and cars. Sulfur is in many ways our biggest problem. It is the primary contributor to haze. It causes difficulty in breathing. It causes damage to lung tissue and respiratory disease and premature death. We know that mercury is also a problem. Monitoring by the National Park Service in the Great Smokey Mountains has found high levels of mercury deposits from air pollution. Mercury pollution of rivers and streams contaminates the fish we eat and poses a serious threat to children and pregnant women. This bill is a clean air and a climate change bill. I hope our committee, as we take advantage of this resurgence of interest in the quality of air and our health and what we need to do about it, we won't just do part of the job. I would like to look at the whole picture. What we do in this bill is take the standards that the EPA has created for nitrogen and sulfur and put them into law. We make them a little stricter, but basically we put them into law. We take the mercury rule of the EPA, and we put it into law. We make it even stricter. The EPA says get rid of 70 percent of it. We say get rid of 90 percent. Then for the first time we put into law carbon caps on electric powerplants which produce 40 percent of all the carbon produced in the United States and are the fastest growing sector producing carbon in America. I hope my colleagues will carefully consider this sector-by-sector approach to climate change. Carbon caps might be the best way -- I believe they are -- for dealing with electric powerplants. When it comes to fuel, there may be another strategy that makes sense. We could deal with that sector in a different way. For example, when we were dealing with sulfur, we didn't put a cap and trade on diesel fuel. We did on powerplants. But when we got to diesel fuel, we just said that you have to have ultra low sulfur diesel for big trucks, which just now went into effect. There is also the large segment of building energy use. If we took the sector of building energy use, the fuel segment, and the electric powerplants, if we added that to a few stationery sources in America and developed strategies that were aggressive but practical and cost-effective for each of those segments, we would be up in the 85 to 90 percent of all the carbon we produce in America. That makes a lot more sense to me than trying to devise some one-size-fits-all system that affects every little shop, store, or farm in America. If we can get most of it this way, maybe we can learn something so that someday we can get the rest of it. I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record at the conclusion of my remarks a section-by-section description of the Alexander-Lieberman bill, a one-page summary of the Alexander-Lieberman Clean Air/Climate Change Act of 2007, as well as a short memorandum which we describe as discussion points and with which I will conclude my remarks by going over in just a moment, and a letter from the National Parks Conservation Association endorsing the bill. Senator Lieberman and I don't have all the answers with this legislation. I feel much more comfortable with this legislation today than I did with any I helped introduce last year or the year before because I have learned a lot more. But I will guarantee my colleagues that there are several areas in which I would welcome advice. Over the last several weeks, I have met with a dozen, two dozen environmental groups, utilities, Tennessee citizens, others who had suggestions. For example, the discussion points that I have put into the record contain five points that are arguable. I have come to a tentative conclusion on them. That is in the bill. But there is another side to the point. I am looking for advice. For example, should we cap only carbon or all greenhouse gases emitted from electricity plants? I chose to cap CO2 only. That is because this is a four-pollutant bill -- sulfur, nitrogen, mercury, and carbon. It is not primarily a climate change bill. Another consideration is that it seems Europe's experience is that it may be better to cap just carbon and not all greenhouse gases. That is a question we can debate. What should the size of an auction be in terms of the allowances? I discussed that earlier. Senator Lieberman and I have chosen 25 percent of the total number of allowances. Senator Carper, in his bill, eventually goes to 100 percent. There are arguments on both sides. What influenced my decision was, I wanted to keep the costs down as much as possible. I was afraid that if we used some different kind of allowance allocation, we might literally take money away from the emitters that they ought to be using to put scrubbers on to reduce sulfur, nitrogen, mercury, or carbon and pay it to other utilities. What rules should govern the use of offset allowances by electric plants? Offsets are an ingenious idea. The idea would be that an emitter of carbon might be able to pay somebody else to reduce their output of carbon and, therefore, we would end up with the same amount of carbon. There are many advantages to that. For example, the Tennessee Valley Authority might pay a Tennessee farmer to manage his livestock crop in a way as to not produce as much methane, might pay a Tennessee farmer to plant a lot of trees. Both of those things would reduce greenhouse gases, and the farmer would have more money in his pocket. That is a good idea. The downside of offsets is that if they are unregulated entirely, it seems to me they could become a gimmick or a fad or worse. What we have done in this bill is adopt a system of offsets from a consortium of States ranging from Maryland to Maine -- that includes Senator Lieberman's State of Connecticut -- and used those model rules on offsets. That tends to limit the way offsets may be used. It is a good place to at least begin. In other words, a utility might produce more carbon, but it might pay someone else who is reducing carbon by using biomass or by sequestering carbon in some other way. There is a question about how should new coal-fired electric plants be treated. There are probably 160 new coal plants on the drawing boards. Some of them hope to escape the rules Congress is considering about capping the output of carbon. I don't think they should. This bill would apply to all coal-fired powerplants, including those on the drawing boards. It also would give an incentive to the first 30 of those plants to meet a high standard of clean coal technology. We don't want to encourage the use of natural gas in this bill. That is the last thing we want to do. We don't want to discourage the use of coal. We have a lot of coal. It would help make us energy independent. We want to encourage the creation of the kind of technology that will permit us to use coal in a clean way that either recaptures the carbon and stores it or finds some other way to deal with it. Finally, what should the CO2 cap levels be? We can debate that, and I am sure we will. But the cap level we pick in this legislation is to say, let's freeze at the level of last year, starting with 2011, and go down step by step into 2025 to 1.5 billion metric tons. This is our contribution to the debate. We have learned enough about our health, about our ability to attract jobs, to know we need to finish the job of cleaning up the air of nitrogen, of sulfur, and of mercury; and we need to take the right first step to begin to control the emission of carbon to deal with global warming. I believe the right first step is a market-based cap and trade system of electricity plants which is described here. May I also say this: Some people say: Well, let's wait until China does it. Let's wait until India does it. The great danger is that we will not unleash the technological genius of the United States of America to clean our air and to deal efficiently and inexpensively with the emissions of carbon. If we do not figure that out, India and China are going to build so many dirty coal powerplants that it will not make any difference what we do because the wind will blow the dirty air around here, and we will suffer and the planet will suffer whatever the consequences are of global warming and of the other pollutants that come from coal. So we have an obligation not just to the world to do this, we have to do this for ourselves because 100, 200, 300, 400, 500 new coal-fired powerplants in India and China will obliterate any of the good work we might do here. I believe if we take the aggressive but practical cost-effective steps in this Clean Air/Climate Change Act, we will unleash the great entrepreneurial spirit of our country. We will be able to create an inexpensive way to deal with carbon on a segment-by-segment basis, deal with the other pollutants, and India and China will have to follow. The rest of the world will follow, and we will be better off. I cannot imagine more interesting and exciting work to be doing. This is the kind of subject on which we should be working together on a bipartisan basis. I thank Senator Lieberman for joining me in cosponsoring this legislation. I salute Senator Carper for his continued leadership. I look forward to working with him.