Global warming: Congress set to decide if EPA can regulate greenhouse gases

The House and Senate both vote Wednesday on whether to curtail or delay EPA power to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions. The agency plans to issue emissions standards in 2012.

Karen Bleier/AFP/Newscom/File
Water vapor streams away from a coal fire electric plant over the ice-covered St. Croix River seen from the interstate bridge separating Wisconsin and Minnesota at Hudson, Wisconsin, on Jan. 9, 2010. The House and Senate are expected to vote Wednesday on measures to limit, or block altogether, the ability of the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

After months of political gyrations and jawboning, both houses of Congress are expected to vote Wednesday on measures to limit, or block altogether, the ability of the US Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Driving the issue is the real likelihood that the EPA will next year, for the first time, issue emission standards to curb greenhouse gases from large industrial smokestacks.

Last year the Senate declined to vote on comprehensive climate-energy legislation, despite the threat that not doing so would prompt the EPA to proceed, via regulation, to curb carbon dioxide and certain other emissions from power plants and other industrial facilities, such as cement plants, factories, and refineries. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has proceeded to do exactly that. [Editor's note: The original version has been changed to correct Ms. Jackson's name.]

Arguments for stripping EPA of such power are that the new rules would hammer the economy and would lead to requirements that even places such as churches and office buildings must obtain EPA emissions permits – something the EPA has denied.

The EPA, through its "tailoring rule," has exempted from forthcoming rules smaller sources of greenhouse-gas emissions, focusing instead on large emitters. Under current agency plans, the greenhouse-gas reporting requirement applies to about 10,000 facilities responsible for an estimated 85 to 90 percent of total US emissions. Most small businesses fall below the 25,000-metric-ton annual threshold and will not be required to report such emissions.

Senators on Wednesday will vote on four measures – one Republican-sponsored and three sponsored by Democrats – that differ from one another in how much EPA regulatory authority each would remove. The order of the votes is important, because it could determine – some say weaken – support for each bill.

Republicans and some Democrats, especially from coal-producing states, don't much like the forthcoming EPA emissions restrictions and have called the measures job killers that are bad for the economy.

• The first amendment up for a vote, by Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana, would make permanent an EPA exemption for greenhouse-gas emissions from agricultural sources. [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph incorrectly included limits on EPA action.]

• The second vote, on an amendment from Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) of Michigan, would include Senator Baucus's agricultural exemptions, a tax credit for renewable energy manufacturers, and a two-year delay on implementing EPA greenhouse-gas regulations.

• The third vote will be on an amendment by Sen. Jay Rockefeller IV (D) of West Virginia, which would delay EPA regulations of greenhouse emissions for two years.

• The final vote will be on an amendment offered by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky. Borrowing language from a bill by Sen. James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma, it would permanently bar the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases.

"This amendment ... would prevent unelected bureaucrats at the Environmental Protection Agency from imposing a new national energy tax on American job creators," Senator McConnell said in a statement Wednesday before the vote. “Everyone knows that this attempt to handcuff American businesses with new costs and regulations is the last thing these job-creators need right now."

But Senator Rockefeller characterizes his bill as more realistic.

"They want the total elimination of the EPA's role, with no other structure in place," Rockefeller said in a speech from the Senate floor last week. "Having nothing in place is irresponsible, unrealistic, and immature."

If passed, any of the amendments would be attached to an unrelated bill dealing with small businesses – and then be amended in conference to concur with the House legislation.

Meanwhile, the House is slated to vote Wednesday on a stand-alone bill – dubbed the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011, sponsored by Reps. Fred Upton (R) of Michigan and Edward Whitfield (R) of Kentucky. It would permanently remove EPA authority to curb greenhouse gases and is expected to pass handily.

But many political observers doubt whether any of the Senate measures will pass. Even if one does and goes to conference committee to work out differences with the House legislation, it is likely to be vetoed by President Obama, they say. If passed, that bill apparently will be the first to propose repealing a federal agency’s scientific finding of a threat to human health and welfare.

The White House has already threatened to veto the Upton-Whitfield bill.

"The Administration strongly opposes House passage of H.R. 910, which would halt the Environmental Protection Agency's common-sense steps under the Clean Air Act to protect Americans from harmful air pollution," the White House said in its veto warning on Tuesday. The bill, it said, would "increase the Nation's dependence on oil and other fossil fuels as well as contradict the scientific consensus on climate change."

Does that mean these votes are merely political grandstanding to show constituents at home and on K Street how lawmakers voted on a key issue?

Almost certainly there is some of that, observers say. Yet the votes matter for what they signal for the future.

The House and Senate amendments to be voted on Wednesday are all separate from – but run parallel to – similar measures near the heart of the continued wrangling over a budget measure to avert a government shutdown. In that fight, Mr. Obama and Democrats say Republicans are only trying to score political points via a dozen or so "policy rider" amendments that target environmental issues – including prohibiting the EPA from acting on greenhouse-gas emissions.

Then there's the upcoming 2012 budget bill, and the House Republican version targets the EPA for large funding cuts. If an amendment prevails in the Senate, or garners significant bipartisan support, the EPA could be in store for other budget-cutting measures in the future that may be far harder to veto, these observers say.

"These kinds of bills [those that delay or delete EPA authority on greenhouse emissions] are a lot like getting like cockroaches in your house: It can be very hard to get them out," says David Doniger, policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate Center. "In the 1990s, one of these types of bills on mileage standards for cars kept getting extended. We ended up losing five or six years – and more than a decade of momentum on improving mileage."

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