WASHINGTON (CN) - As the Senate takes up landmark climate legislation, Cabinet members on Tuesday urged critical Republicans and favorable Democrats to adopt a cap-and-trade policy to catch up on the global effort to reduce carbon emissions. "When the starting gun sounded on the clean energy race, the United States stumbled," Energy Secretary Steven Chu said. "But I remain confident that we can make up the ground."
The 900-page bill introduced in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee aims to curb the nation's greenhouse gas emissions more rapidly than the House version of the bill, but mirrors the House bill in establishing a cap-and-trade system where factories can trade pollution credits.
Senate Democrats applauded the bill as budget-neutral and promoted its environmental protection efforts. Republicans, while acknowledging the problem of climate change, maintained the bill would slow the economy, with one calling it a "job killer." Republicans instead are proposing the government promote more traditional forms of energy.
The hearing comes as the Treasury Department announced it allocated $2.2 billion in bonds for renewable energy development to more than 800 research and development groups.
"Lets focus on nuclear, and oil and gas drilling," Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe proposed.
"This massive energy bill is a job killer for states that produce the red, white and blue energy this country relies upon," Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso said.
During a past hearing, Barrasso dismissed the evidence for global warming as weak and suggested to his fellow senators to, "Move onto other issues."
Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter said the energy price increases would cost the average household $17,000 per year, which he said equates to a 15 percent tax hike.
"I think Americans are tired of listening to the same corporate interest groups," Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson said. She said such groups have overstated the cost burden of the cap-and-trade legislation on the consumer. Jackson put the price at well below 50 cents a day per household.
"The cost of doing nothing, it's huge, and it's not in any of the economic models," Committee Chair Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, said.
Details of the bill's costs have yet to be worked out by the Congressional Budget Office.
Oregon Democrat Sen. Jeff Merkley replied to Republican concerns by saying the bill boils down to a few simple decisions. "It is a choice between clean air or dirty air," he said. "It is a choice between planetary stewardship or a rise in the Earth's temperature."
"What's the final cost, that's the thing that we have to look at?" New Jersey Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg asked. "What would I pay in taxes if we could reverse the damage of an illness?"
Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said that by 2020, Glacier National Park is projected to lose all its glaciers.
But while American lawmakers continue to disagree, Chu said, "China has already made its choice." He noted that China is spending $9 billion a month on clean energy, and plans to spend $88 billion by 2020 developing high voltage lines that will carry energy from renewable sources to population centers.
"The United States, meanwhile, has fallen behind," Chu said, noting that 99 percent of batteries used in American hybrid cars are produced in Japan, and that the United States only produces seven percent of the world's solar cells, down from more than 40 percent in the mid-'90s.
Rhode Island Democrat Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse added that half of the nation's solar panels are imported.
An independent statistical branch of the Energy Department predicted that the cumulative investment in wind turbines and solar panels from now through 2030 could be $3.6 trillion. "The policy decisions we make today will determine the U.S. share of this market," Chu said. "We can still surpass any other country."
The hearing is the first to consider the Senate climate bill, which would require that U.S. emissions fall 20 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, stricter than the 17 percent drop mandated by the House bill.
Both the House and the Senate bills require an 83 percent drop from 2005 levels by 2050.
Chu said such a reduction by 2020 is achievable, and noted that the cost of wind energy is approaching that of coal and gas.
Under the proposed plan, companies that pollute more than allowed would have to buy credit from companies that pollute less than the limit. The market would largely dictate the price of the pollution credits. Members of both parties agreed that consumers will have to pay more for energy.
The hearing comes before the heavily anticipated United Nations climate-change conference in December, where many hope the international community will agree to emissions caps.
Congress must ratify such an agreement, so many are watching to see how far Congress is willing to go in fighting climate change.
The Group of 20 nations has already agreed that the planet's temperature should not rise more than 2 degrees centigrade.
The United States is responsible for roughly 20 percent of the world's emissions, making it the world's second-largest greenhouse gas polluter, after China.
In promoting emissions controls, Chu cited a 2009 MIT study that found a 50 percent chance that the Earth will warm by 9 degrees Fahrenheit this century, and a 17 percent chance it will warm by 11 degrees.
"Eleven degrees may not sound like much, but during the last ice age, when Canada and much of the United States were covered all year in a glacier, the world was only about 11 degrees colder," Chu said. "A world 11 degrees warmer will be very different as well."
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