updated 5/18/2009 5:20:09 PM ET 2009-05-18T21:20:09

Several key Democrats from industrial and oil states threw their support behind a draft climate bill Monday as a House committee began work on massive legislation that would impose the first U.S. limits on greenhouse gases.

While Democratic sponsors of the 948-page bill called it essential to shift the United States away from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources and deal with global warming, Republicans argued it would send energy prices soaring and threaten economic growth.

"Our nation is at a crossroads," declared Rep. Henry Waxman, a Democrat and the committee's chairman "We can continue to look the other way and leave these problems to our children, or we can adopt a new energy policy for America."

Waxman in recent weeks has spearheaded delicate closed-door negotiations with other Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee, hoping to structure the bill so as to get enough support to push it to the House floor, despite expected unified Republican opposition. Similar legislation was passed by a Senate committee but the measure stalled when the full Senate took it up last year.

3 key votes
The House negotiations appeared to bear fruit when two key Democrats on the committee — Reps. John Dingell and Gene Green — announced their support of the bill. Last week, Rep. Rick Boucher, a Democrat who has made protection of coal interests a priority, also endorsed the legislation.

Dingell, the longtime and ardent protector of the U.S. automakers, said he still has some concerns, but that generally the compromises have produced "a good bill" he can support. The bill includes several provisions Dingell wanted including a "cash for clunker" automobiles measure and allowances to help automakers invest in electric vehicles.

Green had sought help for the oil industry, which is prominent in his state of Texas, and got enough to bring him on board. He said the bill provides help for refiners during the transition toward greater use of nonfossil fuels. Democrats also stripped away a provision that would have required refiners to meet a mandatory low-carbon motor fuel standard.

"The United States can either chose to ignore the climate threat ... or it can act. Today we choose to act," said Green.

The bill would establish a limit on greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels by power plants, refineries and factories. Such emissions would have to be 17 percent lower by 2020, compared to 2005 emissions, and 83 percent lower by midcentury.

GOP: Cap and trade is energy tax
To ease the economic impact, the government would issue pollution allowances, or permits, that could be traded on the open market. About 85 percent of those allowances in the early years are to be provided free by the government to ease the cost of the emission reductions.

Republicans, nevertheless, have characterized the "cap-and-trade" approach as tantamount to a massive energy tax because it would make energy from fossil fuels — especially electricity produced from burning coal — more expensive.

"We are putting the entire American economy ... through an absolute economic wringer," declared Rep. Joe Barton , the committee's top Republican.

Barton complained that the cost issue and how emission allowances would be distributed have not been given a full airing. "We do know ... the cost is going to be astronomical," he said.

Barton promised later in the week a Republican alternative that scraps the cap-and-trade approach while providing incentives for industry to develop clean energy without mandated emission reductions.

Republicans have promised dozens of amendments and Democrats are expected to have a few as well. A final committee vote on the bill is not likely until near week's end.

Many environmental groups — including a climate alliance headed by former Vice President Al Gore — support the Democratic bill even after the many changes. But Greenpease USA is among a few that oppose it, saying Democrats caved in to industry demands.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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