House Republicans moved forward Wednesday with a plan to block a key element of President Barack Obama's strategy for fighting climate change, defying a White House veto threat.
Lawmakers began debate on a bill that would allow states to opt out of the Obama administration's plan to limit carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants if the state's governor determines it would cause significant rate hikes for electricity or harm reliability of service.
The bill also would delay the climate rule until all court challenges are completed.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., said it would not reject Obama's plan outright, but would simply give states more time to comply, while protecting families and businesses from potentially catastrophic rate hikes for electricity.
The bill also would protect jobs, Whitfield said, noting that in Kentucky, 92 percent of electricity is generated by coal, contributing more than $3.5 billion to the state's economy and employing 17,900 miners across the state. The coal industry is responsible for more than 700,000 jobs nationwide, Whitfield said, calling the bill part of "an all-out assault" by the Obama administration on energy abundance in the United States.
Whitfield accused Obama of deploying the Environmental Protection Agency "to do whatever it takes to shut down fossil fuel-fired power plants across the country."
The White House said in a statement that the GOP bill undermines public health protections of Obama's Clean Power Plan and could slow or stop U.S. progress in cutting dangerous carbon dioxide pollution from power plants.
Debate over the bill comes as the Obama administration released a report this week asserting that failure to act on climate change could cause an estimated 57,000 deaths a year in the United States from poor air quality by 2100 and cost billions of dollars a year in damage from rising sea levels, increased wildfires and drought.
Pope Francis ignited a global debate on climate change last week as he issued a stern warning about global warming's consequences, especially for the poor and underdeveloped nations.
Power plants account for roughly one-third of all U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. While the United States limits emissions of arsenic, mercury and lead pollution from power plants, there are no national limits on carbon pollution from power plants.
The GOP bill would give governors "unprecedented and broad discretion to avoid compliance" with the Clean Air Act, thereby delaying the delivery of important public health benefits of the Clean Power Plan, the White House said in its veto threat. The bill's effects would be felt hardest by those most at risk from the impacts of air pollution and climate change, such as the elderly, the infirm, children, native and tribal groups and low-income populations, the White House said.
Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., called the GOP bill "dangerous, unnecessary and premature," noting that the climate rule is not yet final.
"EPA's proposed Clean Power Plan is both modest and flexible, and will help us tackle the urgent need to reduce our carbon emissions," Pallone said. "Just saying no — as this bill would have us do — and condemning future generations (to the effects of unchecked climate change) is simply not an option."