The White House has told a group of House GOP conservatives it may be forced to support a limited cap on greenhouse gases and avoid a "train wreck" of regulations involving climate change, sources familiar with the meeting said Monday.
A range of options presented at a meeting last week between senior White House officials and a group of Republican lawmakers was aimed at gauging the reaction to a possible shift of Bush administration policy on climate change.
"The meeting was set up to float a few trial balloons" and it did not go well, with some participants viewing it as "political appeasement" on global warming, said a GOP operative who was briefed on the meeting. He said, given the response, the White House may be retreating on the issue.
White House press secretary Dana Perino acknowledged Monday that the administration was working on new climate change proposals, but said no decision had been made. "We're having a very robust discussion," said Perino at a White House briefing. "There's a basket of things that we're dealing with."
Range of options
At the meeting, White House officials outlined a range of options that were being considered, from simply proposing a set of "principles" to proposing to cap greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, according to two individuals familiar with the discussions.
Perino disputed that description, saying the White House officials, rather than presenting the lawmakers with options, "went up to discuss with members the range of complications and concerns" raised by the possibility of having to regulate greenhouse gases under existing laws.
The Bush administration has been a staunch opponent of a mandatory so-called "cap-and-trade" approach to reducing greenhouse gases, preferring largely voluntary measures to broadly address global warming.
"We aren't necessarily against cap-and-trade proposals," Perino said Monday, but she added quickly, "What we've seen so far from Congress is not something that we can support."
The Senate is expected in June to begin debate on legislation, co-sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and John Warner, R-Va., that would cap greenhouse gas emissions from most sources and allow polluters to purchase emission permits instead of making actual reductions. It is designed to cut emissions 70 percent by mid-century. The House also is planning to draft climate legislation soon.
Among the proposals floated by the administration at the meeting last week was one that would limit the emissions cap to electric power plants, while also allowing a "safety valve" if the cost is found to be too high. The Senate bill has no such escape valve and covers emissions almost across the economy.
The administration views were presented by James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and domestic policy adviser Keith Hennessey.
Among those at the meeting were Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the No. 2 House Republican; Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the ranking Republican on the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming; and Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill. All are members of a group of House Republicans who have been critical of cap-and-trade climate legislation.
The meeting was first reported Monday by The Washington Times.
The White House search for a new climate initiative comes amid growing indication that mandatory action to address global warming is highly likely, if not now, in the next year or so. All three presidential candidates — Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, and the presumptive GOP nominee, John McCain — have said greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, must be reduced.
A 'regulatory train wreck'
At the same time, the administration is facing growing pressure to regulate carbon dioxide under the existing federal clean air law.
"We are dealing with what we call a regulatory train wreck," said Perino on Monday, using language similar to that used by the White House officials during their meeting with the GOP lawmakers last week.
The Environmental Protection Agency has been told by the Supreme Court that carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas, is a pollutant and must be regulated if the EPA determines it is a danger to health and welfare.
At the same time, the Interior Department is under pressure to give polar bears special protection under the Endangered Species Act because of disappearing Arctic sea ice. A lawsuit also has been filed under the same law for more protection for arctic seals.
Together these cases would pull the enforcement of the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act into the debate over climate change. This is a "regulatory trajectory ... we think is fraught with peril and that will ultimately end up in a train wreck," said Perino.
The White House officials made a similar case in their meeting with the GOP lawmakers, according to two individuals familiar with the discussion. They were told, however, that the cap-and-trade proposal being considered would be rejected by congressional Democrats, while alienating GOP conservatives.