The United States was preparing to step out of the foot-dragging column in the global climate change debate as members of Congress appeared poised late last night to push through a landmark energy bill to impose strict limits for the first time on greenhouse emissions from all polluting industries.
Democratic leaders were optimistic that after weeks of fence-sitters in the party having their arms twisted by President Barack Obama among others, they had enough votes to ensure passage in the House of Representatives of what would be the most important piece of environmental legislation in the country's history.
"We're working on it, the President was on the phone," Valerie Jarrett, a senior White House adviser said earlier yesterday. Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker, was more confident. After meeting the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, on Capitol Hill, she said: "Today hopefully we'll have a celebration of American leadership taking its rightful place with German leadership on this important issue."
The Senate has to pass the sprawling bill. At its core will be an array of emissions ceilings accompanied by a cap-and-trade market by which industries could buy pollution allowances from government but sell them to other industries if they make deeper emissions cuts than anticipated.
The legislation aims to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by 17 per cent by 2020 and 83 per cent by 2050 from 2005 levels. US emissions have been expanding by roughly 1 per cent a year.
Supporters of the bill argue it will help shift America from its reliance on fossil fuels and imported oil and foster the development of alternative energies, including solar and wind power.
With virtually no Republican support, corralling enough votes even from Democrats has been gruelling because of hesitation notably from party members of coal states and others from states with heavy farm interests. Some of the bill's provisions were altered at the last moment to appease the farm lobby, easing the emissions restrictions that the industry will face.
Passage of the bill in the House – the climb it faces in the Senate may be even steeper – will be a big boost for Ms Pelosi and will give Mr Obama more credibility ahead of a new round of negotiations for global emissions limits in Copenhagen in December. His predecessor, George Bush, infuriated his European allies by withdrawing America from the Kyoto process. Late on Thursday, Mr Obama was pushing for the bill to be passed, emphasising its potential economic advantages.
"The energy bill before the house will finally create a set of incentives that will spark a clean-energy transformation of our economy," he said. "Make no mistake: this is a jobs bill."