With immigration postponed, Congress seizes on Obama’s coal plan

Obama's plan to curb coal-fired emissions is in the spotlight now that the president has postponed executive action on immigration until after the midterm elections. Republican lawmakers blasted the proposed EPA rules Tuesday at a hearing on the policy's implications for state regulators.

Evan Vucci/AP/File
President Obama wipes sweat from his head during a speech on climate change in 2013. Obama's climate agenda is under fire from Congressional Republicans.

President Obama may have delayed action on immigration until after November’s midterm elections, hoping to avoid political fallout. But that leaves another hot-button topic for critics in Congress to target: climate change.

It’s another issue on which Obama has sidestepped Congress to the praise of his supporters, but to the scorn of his critics – both Democratic and Republican – on Capitol Hill.

Now that immigration is on the back-burner, Republicans and energy-state Democrats are blasting the administration’s energy and climate policies to win over voters in pro-energy constituencies before they head to the polls. And energy-state regulators, skeptical of Obama's Clean Power Plan, are backing Republicans up.

“The burden of implementing this plan will fall to the states, which are being asked to completely redesign their electricity systems,” Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R) of Kentucky said at a House Energy and Power Subcommittee hearing Tuesday. “States will no longer be able to choose what the best electricity mix is to meet their own needs.”

The Clean Power Plan, which Obama unveiled in June, would reduce US power plant emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. The plan aims to accelerate the nation’s shift away from carbon-heavy coal as part of the president’s Climate Action Plan. The EPA regulations give states flexibility in implementing the rules, and prescribe different carbon-cutting targets for different states.

Environmental groups have hailed Obama’s plan as critical to meeting the country’s emissions reductions targets, and say it will give the US leverage in upcoming global climate negotiations. At Tuesday's hearing, Democrats on the House committee – as well as utilities regulators from Maryland and Washington state – lauded Obama’s clean power plan.

“This administration has the responsibility and the duty to reduce emissions,” Rep. Jerry McNerney (D) of California said at the hearing.

But Obama’s coal plan purposefully circumvented a gridlocked Congress, angering Republican lawmakers. And many states that rely on coal-fired power oppose the plan. In August, for example, the Democratic attorney general of West Virginia led a dozen states in filing a lawsuit against the EPA, hoping to block implementation of the Clean Power Plan.

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The difficulty many states say they would have implementing the plan has emerged as a key Republican criticism. House GOP leaders and state regulators from Indiana, Texas, Montana, and Arizona blasted the Obama plan at Tuesday’s hearing, arguing that the EPA’s rule is too rigid, would harm their states’ coal industry, and threatens jobs.

Many state regulators say the EPA doesn’t provide enough flexibility, and several regulators testified Tuesday that the limited comment period on the rule made it difficult for them to calculate the full effects of the proposed regulations.

“Effectively, the EPA is proposing to restructure the nation’s electric system, which has slowly evolved over a century,” Texas Public Utility Commissioner Kenneth Anderson told the committee. “This is a dramatic and unprecedented undertaking which requires considerable thought and analysis.”

State-centered criticisms are providing firepower to Republicans who worry about the potential economic impacts of Obama’s climate policies.

“It’s not about denying climate change,” Chairman Whitfield said, explaining his opposition to the EPA plan. He and other Republicans argued that economic growth and international competitiveness should take precedence over global warming mitigation.

Though the rules vary on a state-by-state basis, with smaller reduction targets for coal states, regulators from coal-reliant Montana and Indiana pushed back against them.

The coal industry has also panned the policies, which would require states to significantly roll back the amount of power they generate with coal.

“The EPA brazenly cast aside any regard for states’ unique energy makeup, opting instead for a ‘one size fits all’ plan that will cause utility costs to skyrocket,” said Laura Sheehan, senior vice president for communications at the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, in a statement Tuesday.

But for a president hoping to tackle climate change by reducing emissions, it’s unlikely any option would have placated all states – particularly those with robust coal industries.

“There is a good argument to be made that, no matter what they did, they were going to run into a political buzz saw from intransigent states that are uninterested in complying with this rule,” Philip Wallach, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, says in a telephone interview. “There are enough states that are dead-set against these rules that they’re going to take every opportunity to challenge them that they can find.”

The rule is controversial among states partially because emissions targets are coming down from on high, says Susan Tierney, a senior advisor at the Analysis Group, a Boston-based consultancy. In other words, states don’t want to be told what to do.

“So much of this is bound up in the paradigm of federal and states rights issues – being told to do something, versus crafting their own path,” Ms. Tierney says in a telephone interview Tuesday.

“States are moving, already, in the direction that targets would take them,” Tierney added.

A Texas regulator – who criticized Obama's EPA rules – said as much at the hearing, arguing that Texas has already made progress.

“It’s not like Texas is burying its head in the sand,” Mr. Anderson says. “We’ve made enormous investments in order to get more efficient.”

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