Senate battles EPA in greenhouse gas showdown

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson defended the agency's role in regulating greenhouse gas at a Tuesday budget hearing. Some Republican senators back a bill to strip the EPA of that authority.

Cliff Owen/AP
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, left, in Washington, Sunday. Senators sparred with the EPA over greenhouse gas rules on Tuesday.

Clashes over climate change dominated a Senate hearing Tuesday on the Environmental Protection Agency's budget, amid signs some senators may soon try to strip the EPA of its authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Instead of talking about dollars and cents, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson mostly found herself defending her agency's key finding last year that greenhouse gases endanger human health and the environment.

That conclusion provided the EPA with legal authority under the Clean Air Act to begin regulating greenhouse-gas emissions from vehicle tailpipes, beginning in April. In turn, that move will start the clock on regulating so-called stationary, or smokestack, sources of carbon dioxide and other warming gases.

The EPA's steps also may be key to any Obama administration hopes to give new momentum to a climate-energy bill currently stalled in the Senate. The threat of EPA regulation of greenhouse gases had been “the stick,” some said, to press Congress to a legislated solution. Without that threat, there is little hope the Congress would act, observers say.

"To have that EPA authority seems critical to any hope for a climate-energy bill, since Congress is at a stalemate," says Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. "Now the opponents of action are going to Congress with a new message: Let's disarm EPA."

Against that backdrop, Sen. Kit Bond (R) of Missouri fired an early salvo during the budget hearing, arguing that EPA “back-door regulations” on greenhouse gases would “kill jobs.” Sen. David Vitter (R) of Louisiana said unearthed e-mails showed some scientists on the International Panel on Climate Change kept adverse findings secret and “raise very serious questions” about the group's credibility and conclusions. The EPA, he said, relied on IPCC findings and therefore “can't forge ahead” with regulation.

But Ms. Jackson responded bluntly, citing the findings of many respected US agencies and scientific bodies that echo her agency’s own finding that climate change is a danger.

“Let me begin by being direct: The science behind climate change is settled and human activity is responsible for global warming,” she said. “Not only have America's top scientific institutions come to that conclusion, but so have numerous other industrialized countries.”

That conclusion is “not a partisan one,” she added, citing more than one Senate resolution approved by members of both parties that characterized climate change as a threat. Her agency's budget, she said, “reflects the science – and positions the EPA to address this issue in a way that will not cause an adverse impact to the economy.”

Jackson's defense may have been helped by a soft timeline for regulation revealed Monday in a letter responding to the concerns of Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia, who suggested delaying EPA regulation until Congress had acted on climate legislation. His letter was signed by seven other moderate Democrats from coal states.

Jackson 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. In her letter to Senator Rockefeller, Jackson added that smaller emitters would not be subject to greenhouse emissions regulation before 2016.

The delay was interpreted by some observers as offering political cover to Democrats. Yet Rockefeller reportedly intends to go ahead with a bill, though such a measure would require at least 60 votes to pass.

Meanwhile, more drastic steps are planned on the other side of the aisle. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska plans to offer a bill that would entirely strip EPA of the authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

“While the delay in implementation is a small forced step in the right direction, the Clean Air Act continues to be the wrong tool for the job, and the EPA's timeline continues to create significant and ongoing uncertainty for a business community,” Senator Murkowski said in a statement.

The bill reportedly has on the order of 40 co-sponsors, including a few Democrats. Though only 51 votes would be needed for passage in the Senate, the House also would have to approve the measure – and even then, President Obama could veto it.

In her letter responding to several questions by Rockefeller, Jackson noted that, should the Murkowski measure pass, it “would undo an historic agreement among states, auto makers, the federal government” to curb automobile emissions.

“A vote to vitiate the greenhouse-gas endangerment finding would be viewed as a vote to reject the scientific work of [13 US government departments]," she added. It would also be "viewed by many as a vote to move the United States to a position behind that of China on the issue of climate change, and more in line with the position of Saudi Arabia.”

Hyperbole? Not according to Kevin Book, an energy analyst and partner with ClearView Energy Partners, a Washington research and consulting company.

Such a decision by Congress would “disrupt auto makers’ plans, torpedo the administration’s delicate, multistate negotiated compromise,” he writes in a new report. It would also "force Congress to revisit the divisive and politically damaging topic" of auto fuel economy standards.

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