Many in the environmental community were rightly appalled by this news about the utility companies trying to extract a major price for a cap on their greenhouse gas emissions.

Closed-door meetings between a select group of environmentalists and a handful of electric utility executives may determine the fate of climate change legislation in the Senate.

Majority Leader Harry Reid’s top energy aide, Chris Miller, nudged the small group to the bargaining table earlier this month in the hope they could resolve more than a decade of dispute on Clean Air Act regulations and reach agreement on a first-ever cap on greenhouse gas emissions.

So far, sources close to the talks said, the two sides are holding firm in their demands. The power companies want relief from the air pollution rules as a price of entry into negotiations if they are going to accept a mandatory carbon limit that won’t apply to other industries. The environmentalists are saying no.

As the article says, the environmentalists aren’t biting on this so far. And environmental policy writers are incensed. David Roberts calls it the scam of the decade. The utilities want an exemption from EPA rules under the Clean Air Act, not just on carbon but all sorts of smog- and soot-forming pollutants, which kill or sicken thousands (and I’m probably lowballing that) annually. Roberts says “it would make the bill worse than nothing. It would be a step backward, on both climate and health grounds. Any environmental group that supports such a deal should be scorned by progressives and cut off by progressive funders.”

Similarly, Brad Plumer says the bill could be a “disaster,” if this deal goes through.

If you have no faith in the environmental community to protect clean air, and believe they will sell out to get something they can call a carbon cap, I have good news for you: there’s no way it can pass. Republicans are heavily invested in opposing what they call a “cap and tax” program, and now we learn that Ben Nelson will join them. He’s probably not alone on the Democratic side – the coal-state Senators aren’t going to like anything that singles out their industry, even if a few utility companies support it. I think the utility-only cap represents a last gasp to get some kind of price on carbon, but there’s just no appetite for it. If this was the deal on the table, I’d say that was a good thing. The price of continuing with dirty air is too, too great. Let the EPA do its work.

The best that will happen is an energy-only bill, something with a solid renewable energy standard and a strong energy efficiency piece, and along the lines of what Jeff Merkley introduced yesterday. Let’s hope.