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John Rockefeller leads charge against EPA on greenhouse gases

Sen. John Rockefeller of West Viriginia, a major coal-producing state, wants Congress to shape regulations for greenhouse gases. He introduced legislation Thursday that would delay EPA plans.

By Staff writer / March 4, 2010

Sen. John Rockefeller, seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday. Rockafeller, of coal-rich West Virginia, led the Senate and House to introduce legislation that would delay any regulation of greenhouse gases by the EPA on Thursday.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP

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To the applause of coal workers and dismay of environmentalists, lawmakers in the Senate and House led by Sen. John Rockefeller (D) introduced legislation Thursday that would delay by two years any regulation of greenhouse gases by the EPA.

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Sen. John Rockefeller warned last week that he might present a delaying measure. He is part of a growing chorus of lawmakers unhappy with the EPA for its plans to start curbing emissions as soon as next year.

Senator Rockefeller wants Congress, not the EPA, to shape regulations for carbon-based gases. His legislation could provide a window for Congress to take action.

Rockefeller is a senator for West Virginia, where the coal industry is a crucial part of the economy.

“Today, we took important action to safeguard jobs, the coal industry, and the entire economy as we move toward clean coal technology,” Rockefeller said in a statement Thursday. “This legislation will issue a two year suspension on EPA regulation of greenhouse gases from stationary sources – giving Congress the time it needs to address an issue as complicated and expansive as our energy future.”

The EPA's stand

In December, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced that greenhouse gases had been determined by science to be a danger to the environment and human health. (Click here for an earlier Monitor story about this.)

But for weeks now, she has been softening the outline and implementation of the EPA’s regulatory plans. Just on Wednesday, she announced that the agency would not regulate industrial sources that emit less than 75,000 tons a year until 2013 at the earliest. Previously, the EPA was using a much more stringent figure – 25,000 tons per year.

Last month, Ms. Jackson told Rockefeller and others during congressional budget hearings that the agency would not seek to regulate emissions at all this year and would phase in regulations on the largest emitters. And she surprised many by indicating that the EPA would not begin requiring any greenhouse-gas permits of “large stationary sources” until 2011 – and even then, only from the largest emitters that already were applying for permits on other gases. Smaller emitters would not be subject to carbon emissions regulations before 2016, she said in a letter to Rockefeller. (For more, click here.)

The delays and softening were interpreted by some observers as offering political cover to Democrats in an election year. They were also interpreted as allowing support to build for a comprehensive climate-energy plan in the Senate.

Yet for Rockefeller, the moves weren’t enough, and he went ahead with his own legislation. But big hurdles lie ahead for the measure: It would require at least 60 votes to pass the Senate – and even if it were to pass both houses, it would probably be vetoed by President Obama, many say.

More to come?

Still, Rockefeller’s measure could pave the way for a harsher bill aimed at completely removing the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska has said she will seek a vote on her plan later this month.

Jackson warned Rockefeller in a letter last month that Senator Murkowski’s legislation would probably undo the compromise between the federal government, states, and automakers to limit tailpipe emissions. Her agency is expected to put forward rules on that subject by the beginning of April.

Environmental voices are warning that Rockefeller’s and Murkowski’s bills were measures that did the bidding of the coal industry and would have far-reaching harm for the environment.

“Preempting the EPA has been the number one objective of the coal industry ever since Congress started to address climate and energy legislation,” said Timothy Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation, in a statement. “Taking away or suspending [the EPA's] authority would set a dangerous precedent for environmental protection in the United States.”

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