On Earth Day, Obama pushes ambitious climate agenda

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As House Democrats begin hearings on a massive energy and climate-change bill, the president aims to turn up the volume in his push to cap greenhouse gas emissions and boost renewable alternatives to fossil fuels

WASHINGTON— President Bill Clinton marked Earth Day in 1994 by promising to “green” the White House from its landscaping to its copy machines. But President Barack Obama and his supporters pledged themselves to a far more ambitious goal on Tuesday—combating climate change all over the world.

On Capitol Hill, where Democrats command majorities in both houses of Congress, House Democrats began three full days of hearings on a massive energy and climate-change bill, inviting testimony from three Cabinet secretaries and more than a dozen captains of industry, labor and the environmental movement.

Obama, meantime, prepared to visit a wind turbine manufacturer in Iowa this week to champion his push to cap greenhouse gas emissions and boost renewable alternatives to fossil fuels.

And the political theatrics were only the most visible part of what shapes up to be a frenzied lobbying fight over an issue that pits some of the nation’s highest-powered interests against one another in a tangle of coalitions and alliances of convenience.

“This is the biggest game in town,” said Joe Stanislaw, a senior adviser with Deloitte, who has followed the climate legislation closely.

A recent analysis by the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity estimated that 770 firms and interest groups hired some 2,340 climate lobbyists in the past year.

Intense negotiations are also under way among the House energy committee, the White House and a key group of moderate Senate Democrats. The outcome of those talks may determine the fate of what advocates and foes alike call the farthest-reaching attempt yet by Congress to limit the emissions scientists blame for global warming.

The debate revolves around a “cap and trade” proposal to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Under the broad outlines of the plan, the federal government would force utilities and other large emitters of those gases to obtain permits – either from the government or through an auction – to cover their emissions levels.

The number of permits would shrink every year, reducing total emissions – and, in effect, forcing Americans to reduce their dependence on traditional fossil fuels.

Obama and Democratic leaders say the cap-and-trade system would catalyze a “clean-energy economy” where increases in solar, wind and other renewable energy sources create domestic jobs.

The Environmental Protection Agency released an estimate Tuesday predicting the House cap-and-trade bill would “drive the clean energy transformation of the U.S. economy by making it more economically attractive to invest in renewable energy, energy efficiency and climate-friendly technologies” – and, in some scenarios, actually lower energy costs for low-income consumers.

Republican critics call the plan a de facto energy tax that could devastate families and stunt economic growth. The top Republican on the House energy and commerce committee, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, warned Tuesday that the under the proposed legislation, “we are capping our economy and trading away our jobs. We are instituting a regressive energy tax on Americans already enduring high unemployment, lost 401(k)s, and rampant home foreclosures.”

House witnesses will debate the economic impact this week, along with a host of other details that could affect the bill’s chances of passage. More than 50 experts are set to testify, including Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

Meantime, to underscore its commitment to environmental action, the EPA reversed a Bush administration decision and ordered federal facilities and private companies to provide more complete reports on any toxic chemicals they release into the air, water or ground.

“People have a right to information that might affect their health and the health of their children — and EPA has a responsibility to provide it,” said Jackson. “Restoring the reporting requirements assures transparency and provides a crucial tool for safeguarding human health and the environment in our communities.”

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