Politics & Policy

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.

Under the Congressional Review Act, Senate measures that would nullify agency regulations require only a bare majority (51 votes) for passage. “I don’t think it’s inconceivable that we could get to 60,” says Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon. Four Democrats to watch are Kent Conrad (N.D.), Byron Dorgan (N.D.), Tim Johnson (S.D.), and Claire McCaskill (Mo.), all of whom co-sponsored the Rockefeller bill. It’s also worth keeping an eye on the other Alaska senator, Democrat Mark Begich, who recognizes the importance of petroleum to his state’s economy. In the past, a substantial number of Midwest and Rust Belt Democrats have expressed skepticism or hostility toward GHG regulations, citing the potentially severe economic costs. Some, such as Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, have vowed to oppose the Murkowski resolution. But others may endorse it.

Of course, even if it wins Senate approval, the resolution faces an uphill battle in the lower chamber, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) was able to muscle through sweeping cap-and-trade legislation last year despite significant resistance from her own caucus. (The bill passed by a vote of 219 to 212, with 44 Democrats in opposition.) And even if the Murkowski measure somehow found its way to President Obama’s desk, the White House has promised a veto. Still, Senate passage of the resolution would be a powerful rebuke to Obama’s EPA maneuver.

A final point: Critics say the resolution would stifle progress on climate change. Yet when set against the backdrop of surging GHG emissions in developing countries such as China and India, the current U.S. climate debate seems almost trivial. Whether or not America embraces a strict new EPA regulatory regime, global emissions are poised to balloon. Consider the latest International Energy Agency (IEA) projections, which were released in November: On current government policies, the IEA estimates that energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions will jump from 28.8 gigatons in 2007 to 40.2 gigatons in 2030, an increase of nearly 40 percent, with “all of the projected growth” coming from non-OECD countries, principally China and India. Since 2006, notes energy expert Robert Bryce in his book Gusher of Lies, China has been “burning more coal than the U.S., E.U., and Japan combined.”

None of that means the U.S. should ignore climate change or stop searching for practical, efficient ways to reduce its carbon footprint. But it does mean that new EPA regulations would have very little impact on aggregate worldwide emissions.

– Duncan Currie is deputy managing editor of National Review Online.

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