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Most environmentalists agree: The American Clean Energy and Security Act isn't the law on climate change and renewable energy we need. Whether it's a law we should accept, though, is subject to heated debate.

In March, when House Energy and Commerce Committee chairs Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) introduced a draft of the act, environmentalists cheered. The early draft required that by 2025, utilities would generate 25 percent of their energy from renewable sources. It called for U.S. emissions of greenhouse gasses to be cut by 20 percent (from 2005 levels) by 2020. The latter goal would be met through a "cap-and-trade" system: Permits to pollute would be auctioned off, with the money earmarked for developing renewable energy and helping consumers pay rising fuel costs. Polluters who emitted less than the permits allowed could sell the remaining credits to others -- even as overall permitted emissions shrank over time.

Massive lobbying by the coal, oil and utility industries followed. The revised Waxman-Markey sent to the full House May 21 reduced the renewables target to 20 percent, and emission-reduction to 17 percent. (The longer-term goal of an 80 percent emission cut by 2050 remained.) And the bill no longer required that emissions permits be auctioned off: Most of the permits would be given away instead.

Some groups -- including the Environmental Defense Fund and the League of Conservation Voters -- praised the bill as an historic first step. Al Gore said the marked-up Waxman-Markey "retained the integrity" of the original.

But Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, among others, said the bill might be worse than nothing. Public Citizen called it "a huge disappointment."

Critics had largely opposed cap-and-trade to begin with, preferring a direct tax on carbon emissions. Cap-and-trade, they say, would simply create a new derivatives market, like the ones implicated in the current financial meltdown. And the permit giveaway, they say, is just another subsidy for polluters.

On emissions reduction, they contend that even the draft bill's targets were too low to prevent the worst effects of climate change. (Many scientists agree.) Waxman-Markey, doubters say, won't make the U.S. enough of a leader at this year's crucial global climate talks, in Copenhagen.

Backers of the bill don't necessarily disagree. But politically, they say, Energy Committee Democrats like U.S. Rep Mike Doyle did all they could. Thus, when nine local members of progressive group MoveOn.org visited Doyle's Downtown office three days before the final vote, it wasn't to protest the weakened bill. It was to hand a Doyle aide a green hardhat, and encourage him to keep fighting the good fight on Waxman-Markey.

"We are grateful that he's on the right side of this issue," says activist Michael Lambert.

With a pro-science president, a Democratic majority and growing public concern, why is passing a clean-energy bill so tough? One factor dates to 1993, when Democrats backed a previous clean-energy measure. That "BTU tax" failed -- but Republicans bludgeoned Dems with it while engineering the 1994 Congressional takeover.

"It was a brutal lesson for a lot of House Democrats, and they haven't forgotten it," says Matt Dinkel, now a Doyle spokesman and then an aide to Doyle's predecessor, Rep. William Coyne.

Indeed, this time around it was mostly Energy Committee Republicans who proposed more than 400 amendments to Waxman-Markey. One failed amendment would have totally voided the bill in the likely event that both China and India fail to embrace comparable greeenhouse-gas reductions.

But Waxman-Markey supporters never expected votes from Republican committee members like Rep. Tim Murphy, of Mount Lebanon. The challenge was moderate Dems, especially those from fossil-fuel-producing states like Pennsylvania. Doyle is "under enormous pressure" from coal-mining interests, notes Lambert.

Moreover, says Dinkel, Waxman-Markey must: Garner Republican votes in the House; win broad public support despite rising fuel prices; and last four decades without being overturned by a future Congress.

Waxman-Markey is no longer a great bill, Dinkel admits. "The choice is really a good bill or no bill."

Opportunities to strengthen the bill -- or weaken it -- remain. The full House debates Waxman-Markey in June.

click to enlarge U.S. Rep Mike Doyle
U.S. Rep Mike Doyle

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