Climate change: Candidates differ on causes, vague on cures

WASHINGTON–Linda McMahon and Richard Blumenthal differ sharply on a range of environmental issues, starting with the big one: climate change. But neither of the U.S. Senate candidates has a strong position on what should be done about it.

Their differences begin with the basic question of what causes global warming, a phenomenon that many scientists say is linked in large part to the emission of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. Such pollution is caused by, for example, the burning of fossil fuels such as coal.

McMahon, the Republican nominee and former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, says the “science is mixed” on what has caused global warming, although she does not dispute that the climate is indeed changing.

“I just don’t think we have the answers as to why it changes,” she said. “I’m not a scientist, so I couldn’t pretend to understand all the reasons. But the bottom line is we really don’t know.”

Blumenthal’s take? “The science is irrefutable,” said the state’s Democratic attorney general. “And we would be irresponsible to ignore it.”

When it comes to possible solutions, things get murkier. Congress tried, unsuccessfully, to tackle this issue last year with a broad climate and energy bill that included a controversial cap-and trade system. The House-passed legislation aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by setting caps on emissions and outlining a regulatory framework that would allow companies to buy and sell pollution “allowances.”

The goal of the bill, which included many other energy-related provisions, was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 83 percent (using 2005 levels) by 2050.

Soon after the House passed that legislation, Blumenthal joined with other attorneys general in signing a letter that called the House bill a “strong foundation” for legislative action and calling on the Senate pass its own climate bill. The letter mostly urged the Senate not to pre-empt stronger state laws limiting greenhouse gas emissions and addressed other state implications, but it also generally calls for an aggressive approach to the issue.

The cap-and-trade legislation, and other scaled-back versions with weaker approaches to reducing greenhouse gases, has completely stalled in the Senate.

McMahon said she strongly opposes any cap-and-trade bill and argues that Blumenthal’s expressed support is tantamount to backing a national “energy tax.” That’s shorthand for the GOP’s contention that the proposal would result in increased utility bills and other energy expenses, as companies seek to cover the costs of a new regulatory system, such as purchasing pollution permits or implementing new technologies to reduce their emissions.

The Congressional Budget Office concluded the House bill would cost the average household $175 a year by 2020, but some critics have suggested that is a low-ball estimate that doesn’t take into account more aggressive caps in the legislation’s later years.

“I don’t believe at this time, given where we are with our economy, that cap-and-trade is the right thing,” McMahon said. But she was vague about what steps she would favor, suggesting only that she might support offering government incentives, such as tax deductions, for companies that voluntarily purchase and install the technology to reduce emissions.

Blumenthal sharply rejected McMahon’s suggestion that he supported an energy tax. “She is using phony numbers concocted by right-wing think tanks designed to scare people and protect the special interests,” he said, referring to the conservative Heritage Foundation’s analysis of the House-passed bill.

But when asked whether he still supports the climate change bill, Blumenthal said: “We should avoid a false debate about legislation that is dead.”

He said he would support “reasonable and sensible measures to stop the pollution that causes climate disruption” but declined to say what kind of control on carbon emissions he would support.

Blumenthal instead said he would push for a comprehensive energy policy that promotes “green energy jobs and technology, as well as making polluters pay.” He said in particular he would promote a legislative approach that rewards Connecticut for its reliance on cleaner energy sources, such as nuclear power and natural gas.

Ambiguities notwithstanding, the two candidates’ positions on climate change reflects a broader split in their outlook on the environment.

As attorney general, Blumenthal has a track record of suing corporations and government agencies to win strict enforcement of environmental laws. He clearly supports an aggressive federal and state regulatory system.

McMahon, by contrast, recently identified the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy as two agencies that might be bloated and in need of scaling back. And in her economic platform, she calls for the “review and repeal” of all federal regulations that “inhibit growth,” although she doesn’t identify any specific rule she’d like to see repealed.

These big-picture differences play out on a host of environmental policy questions.

Blumenthal and McMahon, for example, sharply diverge on the question of offshore drilling. Blumenthal said he supports the current moratorium on deepwater drilling, put in place by the Obama Administration in the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He noted that it’s not a permanent ban, just a temporary halt until “we determine what caused the BP disaster, so we can learn from it and avoid making the same mistake again.”

McMahon said she opposed the moratorium, arguing that it’s “stopping any and all production and taking jobs.”

Recent news reports have suggested the economic impact of the moratorium has been limited so far, but Gulf Coast officials fear continuing it until its scheduled Nov. 30 expiration could increase the toll.

Asked what steps might be taken to avoid a similar mishap, McMahon said the drilling rigs should be “re-inspected and re-certified to make sure they’re not cutting corners on safety issues” and then allowed to get back to work.

Furthermore, McMahon said, the government should allow a significant expansion of offshore drilling and energy exploration in other parts of the U.S. “I believe that as part of a national energy policy, as well as energy independence, we should as a country explore our natural resources in an environmentally responsible way,” she said.

That includes, for example, drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which foes argue would destroy a pristine wildlife habitat and supporters say would provide an immense oil boon without environmental damage.

Blumenthal said the idea of opening ANWR for oil exploration “reflects a looking-backward approach” to energy policy. “There are no jobs for Connecticut in ANWR,” he said. “There are jobs for Connecticut” in new technologies, such as fuel cells and renewable energy sources, like wind and solar.

More generally, Blumenthal said his support for offshore drilling would depend on “where, how, and what would be done.” He called for better federal oversight of any such drilling efforts, noting that the Interior Department’s failings helped in part to pave the way for the BP disaster.

There are at least two environmental issues where Blumenthal and McMahon’s positions converge: nuclear power and renewable energy. Both say the federal government should foster an expansion of these two energy sources, favoring, for example, loan guarantees to help the nuclear energy industry construct new plants.

On the politically and logistically difficult question of how to dispose of the nation’s nuclear waste, McMahon said she is “not an expert” and isn’t sure of the best solution. Blumenthal said he would support sending nuclear waste to the federal repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, although that project has been long stalled and may well be dead. (The current Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, is from Nevada and opposes it, as do many other lawmakers who would see nuclear waste being transported through their states on the way to the Nevada site.)

If the federal government finds a more suitable site, “so much the better,” said Blumenthal. “But right now, Connecticut is bearing the cost and … the risk of storing casks of waste at Millstone.”

On renewable energy, McMahon said the federal tax code should be “aggressively supporting” innovation in this field. Similarly, Blumenthal says he would push for “clean energy business zones,” that provide tax credits, grants and other assistance to clean-energy companies.

No matter who wins in November, these issues are likely to be at the top of the 112th Congress’s agenda, since lawmakers have punted and stalled on everything from a climate change bill to renewable energy proposals to a BP oil spill response in this Congress.