Curbing an EPA Power Grab
Will the Senate vote to block its regulation of greenhouse gases?


With oil still gushing into the Gulf of Mexico and partisan recriminations flying on Capitol Hill, the Senate today will vote on a measure to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions under the Clean Air Act. The resolution, introduced by Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, has garnered 40 other co-sponsors, including Democrats Mary Landrieu (La.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), and Ben Nelson (Neb.). The only GOP senators who have not signed on are the three New Englanders — Scott Brown (Mass.), Susan Collins (Maine), and Olympia Snowe (Maine) — though Republicans are confident that one or more of them will vote for final passage.

West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, whose home state generates nearly all its electricity from coal, has previously suggested an alternative to the Murkowski proposal that would block the EPA from regulating GHG emissions produced by stationary sources for two years. Earlier this week, however, Rockefeller announced that he would support the resolution championed by his Alaska colleague. “I have long maintained that the Congress — not the unelected EPA — must decide major economic and energy policy,” he said in a statement. “EPA regulation will have an enormous impact on the economic security of West Virginia and our energy future. I intend to vote for Senator Murkowski’s Resolution of Disapproval because I believe we must send a strong message that the fate of West Virginia’s economy, our manufacturing industries, and our workers should not be solely in the hands of EPA.”

Republicans insist that today’s vote is completely unrelated to the science of anthropogenic climate change; rather, it is an attempt to curb an EPA power grab and thwart “a backdoor national energy tax” (as one Senate aide puts it). The vote traces its roots back to an April 2007 Supreme Court ruling that GHGs could be classified as pollutants under the Clean Air Act for the purpose of mitigating man-made global warming. While the Bush administration chose not to make such a designation, the Obama administration used the threat of EPA action to pressure Democrats into enacting climate legislation. Yet by late 2009, it was clear that the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, which the House narrowly approved last June, had virtually no chance of passing the Senate.

In December, as the vaunted U.N. climate summit began in Copenhagen, the EPA issued a formal endangerment finding, declaring that “the current and projected concentrations of the six key well-mixed greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) — in the atmosphere threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations.” The agency’s GHG controls are scheduled to start taking effect in 2011. The EPA has sought to protect smaller emitters, at least temporarily, by adjusting the text of the Clean Air Act to boost the threshold above which GHG polluters are subject to regulation. This adjustment has become known as the “tailoring rule.” But Republicans charge that the EPA cannot arbitrarily tinker with the language of a federal law. Moreover, they argue, even with the tailoring rule, many smaller emitters would still be vulnerable to the new regulations, owing to state and local statutes.


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