Senate vote: Should EPA have authority to regulate greenhouse gases?

A resolution aims to stop the EPA's plan to start regulating greenhouse gases from the largest smokestack sources next year. The vote on it could signal the chances for an energy-climate bill.

By , Staff writer

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    Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) joined by other Senate colleagues, talks about her efforts to block the EPA from issuing climate regulations, during a news conference in the Senate Radio-TV Studio on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday.
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With oil bubbling in the Gulf of Mexico and US energy policy on hold, the US Senate plans to vote Thursday on whether to yank federal regulators' authority to clamp down on emissions of greenhouse gases.

President Obama had offered Congress what some dubbed a "carrot and stick" approach – the “carrot” being that lawmakers could regulate such emissions themselves in a comprehensive energy-climate bill, or else come up against a regulatory "stick" from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Despite passage of an energy-climate bill in the House of Representatives last year, the US Senate version has stalled. Yet looming like a locomotive on the tracks, the EPA says it will begin regulating carbon emissions from the largest smokestack sources next year.

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EPA scientists formally concluded last year that carbon emissions were a danger to human health and the environment. Federal regulatory machinery began to clank forward – Mr. Obama's "stick."

Now comes Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska with a "Resolution of Disapproval." The explicit aim is to get rid of the stick by nullifying the EPA's "endangerment" finding that carbon emissions are a hazard.

The disapproval resolution stands little chance of becoming law because Obama threatened Wednesday to veto the bill if it reaches his desk. But as a piece of political theater, it has some big implications.

On the one hand, if it passes the Senate – only 51 votes are needed – it would mean the EPA would lose the ability to regulate vehicle tailpipe emissions. That would reduce America’s overall amount of oil savings by more than 450 million barrels, the agency has said. [Editor's note: The original version gave the wrong amount of oil savings.]

On the other hand, even if it doesn't pass the Senate, Senator Murkowski's resolution could harden battle lines and undercut any hope of getting a comprehensive energy-climate bill through the Senate. It also could spark the House to vote for a similar bill, leaving Obama with a revolt on his hands.

Environmentalists have gone to the mat fighting Murkowski's resolution. Anything close to Senate passage, they say, could sabotage the Obama administration’s hope of winning the 60 Senate votes necessary for passage of a comprehensive bill.

"This is a very bad proposal, and it would be bad to have it succeed anywhere, even if it could never become law," says David Doniger, policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center.

But the notion of letting the EPA regulate carbon emissions has been anathema to many in Congress– not just Republicans, but coal-state Democrats as well. On a broader level, add in the coal, utility, and oil and gas industries, not to mention manufacturers and the US Chamber of Commerce. Industry think tanks dubbed the EPA's steps a "power grab."

Going into the vote, Murkowski and her 41 supporters could be short of the 51 votes needed for approval. The question is: What will swing Democrats from coal states, the two Republican senators from Maine (Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe), and the new Massachusetts senator (Republican Scott Brown) do?

West Virginia Sen. John Rockefeller (D) announced his support for the Murkowski measure earlier this week.

Absent the passage of a comprehensive energy-climate bill, fossil fuel will continue to appear cheap and undercut the president's hoped-for shift toward renewable energy. The Senate vote Thursday is a kind of straw vote that could set the stage for – or torpedo – further action on energy-climate legislation this year.

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