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Green Momentum Hits Congress

It's easy to become depressed by the latest daily dose of bad news from the war to the Supreme Court, but progressives ought to be encouraged by a quiet series of positive environmental developments in recent weeks.
 
 
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The news barely made a ripple outside the Twin Cities.

But Senator Norm Coleman’s, R-Minn.,  recent decision to co-sponsor legislation aimed at reducing global warming pollution could be a harbinger of better things to come for progressive environmental policies.

It’s easy to become depressed by the latest daily dose of bad news—Congress caving on the war funding vote…the Supreme Court's disregard for women workers…three Republican presidential  candidates who don’t believe in evolution !—but progressives ought to be encouraged by a quiet series of positive environmental developments in recent weeks.

These events all stem from the last election, or the prospect of the next one.

Coleman, for example, appears to be  reacting to recent polls which show he could be vulnerable to challenges by Al Franken or other progressives.

(By contrast, the last time global warming was debated on the Senate floor, in 2005,  Coleman missed one key vote and  then voted with a reactionary majority to continue the failed policies of voluntary activity.)

Whether Coleman is acting now from belated enlightenment or from fear, his decision still helps build momentum for positive action on global warming.

In another unpublicized but very positive sign last week, a Democratic-led House Appropriations subcommittee voted to boost funding for such key environmental programs as cleaning up toxic diesel emissions and restoring Bush administration spending cuts for state and local clean air agencies. (Clean Air Watch was among the many groups that had urged both moves.)

The bill also would put lawmakers on record in favor, at least in concept, of mandatory cuts on heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions.

And, in a surprise move prompted by Senate Democratic opposition, thwarted Bush nominee and industry pal William Wehrum resigned from his position as acting head of EPA’s air pollution program, effective tomorrow.

Only a few weeks ago,  Wehrum declared he had “no plans to go anywhere,” but he apparently wore down under the continuing glare of congressional scrutiny.

Will this positive trend continue? Here are a couple of key things to look for when Congress returns from its Memorial Day break:

Energy legislation will come up for consideration by the full Senate, which will have several opportunities to begin pointing the nation in a more positive direction. One key vote is likely on a plan by Senator Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, that would require electric utilities to create more electricity from renewable energy sources. Last week, a diverse coalition or almost 200 corporations, trade associations, labor unions, faith-based organizations, and environmentalists urged Bingaman to press ahead with his plan for a “renewable portfolio standard.”

Needless to say, the coal lobby will oppose this progressive idea. Coal will also be at the center of a possible second floor fight over  a controversial plan to promote conversion of coal to liquid fuel.

Environmentalists will oppose government subsidies for this process (which isn’t used in the U.S. today because it costs so much—the Energy Department recently reported that one plant alone could cost $4.5 billion) because it could lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions and go directly against the general tide of dealing with global warming.

One other very important story to monitor in the coming weeks is the upcoming decision by the Bush administration on national health standards for smog, or ozone. The White House began reviewing an EPA proposal last week, and there is a theory afoot that the Democratic-led Congress has emboldened the EPA career professionals to press for tougher standards needed to protect kids with asthma and many millions of others harmed by smog.

EPA is under a court order to announce a proposed decision by June 20. Industry groups are mounting a quiet campaign to oppose tougher standards. Already a dozen governors and numerous state and local  officials have joined an industry alliance in protesting the idea of better standards.

It would be nice if some in Congress (Norm Coleman, you could join progressive Democrats and Republicans on this one, too) were willing to send EPA a simple message: enforce the Clean Air Act, and make sure that clean-air standards actually protect the breathing public.

Frank O'Donnell is president of Clean Air Watch .

 
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