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Sunday, February 13, 2011
Congress Fights Over EPA Rule
By Michael Coleman
Journal Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Another climate change battle is brewing in Washington as Republicans and some Democrats move to block or delay moves by the Environmental Protection Agency to set new standards for greenhouse gas emissions.
Democrats in New Mexico's congressional delegation, including Senate Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman, support the EPA's effort.
Republican lawmakers, citing concerns about U.S. economic competitiveness and jobs, strongly oppose the regulatory moves. And Democrats are hardly unified in what could shape up as one of President Barack Obama's biggest fights in the new Congress. Skittish lawmakers worried about their 2012 re-election prospects in the midst of a weak economy and an unemployment rate of 9 percent pose Obama's biggest challenge in keeping his party in line on the EPA rules.
Last week, Rep. Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, introduced the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011, which he said would block the EPA "from imposing a backdoor cap-and-trade tax" on utilities and other greenhouse gas-emitting industries.
"We firmly believe federal bureaucrats should not be unilaterally setting national climate change policy, and with good reason: EPA's cap-and-trade tax agenda will cost jobs, undermine the competitiveness of America's manufacturers, and, as EPA has conceded, will have no meaningful impact on climate," Upton said.
Several other congressional Republicans have, or are expected to, introduce similar bills.
Meanwhile, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and some other moderate Democrats have proposed legislation that would delay implementation of the EPA's rules for two years to give Congress time to work out a legislative compromise.
Co-sponsors of Rockefeller's bill include Democratic Sens. Jim Webb of Virginia, who last week announced he would not seek re-election, and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who is expected to seek a second term.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson attacked Upton's bill in a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday and disputed several Republican congressmen's assertion that climate change science is unresolved.
"Chairman Upton's bill would, in its own words, repeal the scientific finding regarding greenhouse gas emissions," Jackson said in her opening statement at the hearing. "Politicians overruling scientists on a scientific question — that would become part of this committee's legacy."
Jackson added that the bill "is part of an effort to delay, weaken or eliminate Clean Air Act protections of the American public."
Although many Democrats — including those in New Mexico's congressional delegation — side with the EPA, that isn't the case for all Democrats, especially those from coal-producing states or those who could face tough re-election battles in 2012.
In 2009, a House approved cap-and-trade bill became a political Achilles' heel for many Democrats, including former Rep. Harry Teague, a New Mexico Democrat who lost his re-election bid last year.
Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat elected to the Senate in 2010, made his opposition to cap-and-trade a hallmark of his campaign, punctuating his position with a television commercial that showed him shooting a copy of the bill with a rifle. Some proponents of a congressional fix argued that comprehensive legislation could have staved off more far-reaching EPA regulatory action. But the Senate never approved the House-passed bill.
Both supporters and opponents of cap-and-trade agreed the move would result in higher costs for American households. However, they disagreed about how much.
The EPA estimated the average cost per household would be between $98 and $140 per year, while the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank calculated the same bill would cost the average family $1,500 per year.
The EPA dispute has been brewing since 2007, when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that greenhouse gases could harm human health and well-being. As part of its ruling, the court found that greenhouse gas emissions — including carbon dioxide — are within the Clean Air Act's definition of air pollutants.
Late last year, the agency issued a finding that greenhouse gas emissions endanger the public's health and welfare and announced plans to set new standards for utilities and other large industrial polluters.
In December 2010, the agency announced plans to set new greeenhouse gas emissions standards for utilities and petroleum refineries.
Last month, the new greenhouse gas permitting requirements kicked in for large emitters that are already obtaining permits from the EPA for other pollutants.
New and existing facilities making major modifications will be required to include greenhouse gases in their permit requests if they increase greenhouse gas emissions by at least 75,000 tons per year. The permits must demonstrate the use of "best available control technologies" to minimize emissions if the facility is expanded.
New Mexico's Democratic senators, Tom Udall and Jeff Bingaman, argue that concern for public health trumps other considerations. Bingaman, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he would prefer Congress deal with emissions policy through legislation. But he also said he endorses the EPA's right to regulate emissions in the absence of a bill.
"I would rather see Congress deal explicitly with issue of greenhouse gases ... than have it done by a regulation by the EPA," Bingaman told the Journal. "But I don't think it's responsible to stop the regulatory agency from moving ahead unless Congress has some alternative it has a prospect of enacting. I'm not aware of one."
"I'm not in a position to second-guess the science on this," Bingaman added.
Udall, who sits on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees the EPA, also said he supports EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.
"I support them going forward to protect the public health on this particular issue," Udall said.
He said the public is generally behind the EPA's efforts to keep the air clean.
"The opposition (Republican) party tries to make a big deal out of the EPA, but out in the country, I think people feel pretty comfortable with what the EPA's doing to protect public health," Udall said.
New Mexico Economic Development Secretary Jon Barela opposes the new rules, describing them as detrimental to efforts to turn New Mexico's economy around.
"When government agencies overreach their power by imposing burdensome regulations, which were not only rejected by Congress but by the people of New Mexico, they are limiting the competitiveness of businesses as we attempt to get our economy back on track," he said.
"These regulations will only lead to fewer jobs created and, in this case, affect the financial situation of every New Mexican and every American by increasing the cost of everyday activities like turning on a light or taking their children to school."
Udall questioned the notion that the EPA regulations would harm the economy.
"At this particular point, I don't know you can give specific evidence that is true," he said.
Rep. Steve Pearce, a New Mexico Republican who opposes the EPA's move to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, strongly disagreed.
"That regulation will kill more jobs than any single thing that's happened in the recent past," Pearce told the Journal. "Let's do the things that create jobs and not let the agencies rule. We're going to look closely at regulations that are bypassing Congress, and I consider the greenhouse gas to be right on the front line of that discussion."
Valerie Smith, a spokeswoman for Public Service Company of New Mexico, said the state's largest electric utility doesn't have an official position on the EPA rule but would like to see the emissions question solved by federal legislation.
However, she said that if PNM were to expand its coal-fired plant in San Juan County, the permitting requirements under the EPA rule would be "quite costly."
"We've had a longtime view that the Clean Air Act is not well-suited to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in a way that manages cost impacts for customers," Smith told the Journal. "We've long supported a federal legislative solution because we feel that is a better way to have meaningful reductions of greenhouse gases and give utilities a better ability to manage costs on behalf of customers."