Senators try to thwart EPA efforts to curb emissions

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 22, 2010

A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation Thursday to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, a move that could undercut one of the Obama administration's top domestic priorities.

As prospects fade that Congress will pass a comprehensive climate bill this year, the EPA has been moving forward to enact regulations that would put costly limits on power plant pollution, making the agency the target of influential industry representatives and some members of Congress.

"We're being presented with a false choice between unacceptable legislation and unacceptable regulations," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), adding that it made no sense in the midst of an economic downturn. "Here in Washington, federal bureaucrats are contemplating regulations that will destroy jobs, while millions of Americans are doing everything they can just to find one."

Murkowski, joined by three Democrats and 35 other Republicans, said she is offering a "resolution of disapproval" that would prevent the EPA from taking action on emissions by reversing its recent finding that greenhouse gases endanger the public's health and welfare.

The resolution faces an uphill battle because it would have to pass both houses, but it highlights the deep unease that Republicans and moderate Democrats feel about taking action on climate change -- either in legislation or through the EPA.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, called the move "a direct assault on the health of the American people." She said that if the public waits for Congress to pass climate legislation, "that might not happen, in a year or two, or five or six or eight or 10."

Last month, at a dinner with environmentalists, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said her staff had figured out how it could impose a nationwide, market-based system to curb greenhouse gases like the one being contemplated in Congress. But that approach could spark years of litigation from industries that would have to comply with new and potentially complex federal rules and would probably impose higher costs on industry than steps shaped by lawmakers.

John Podesta, a White House ally who heads the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, said that although the administration is still hoping for a legislative solution on climate, "they're not going to give up their authority to move forward in the absence of comprehensive legislation. We've seen how difficult it is to get 60 votes for almost anything."

For months, most environmentalists and representatives of fossil-fuel-based industries assumed that Congress would pass legislation that would override what many call "Plan B," in which the EPA -- empowered by a 2007 Supreme Court ruling -- regulates greenhouse gases on its own.

The newly activist agency is pressing ahead. It finalized its scientific finding that greenhouse gases qualify as a pollutant last week, and by the end of March it plans to finalize rules regulating greenhouse gases that cars and trucks emit and rules for identifying any facility emitting at least 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide as a target for regulation.

It's that step, targeting coal-fired utilities, oil refineries and other major emitters, whose products and services ripple through the entire U.S. economy, that is sparking a major lobbying and litigation fight.

"The Murkowski resolution asks each senator to deny the overwhelming science that greenhouse gas pollution is a real and serious threat to the health and welfare of our citizens," Jackson said Thursday. "It disregards the Supreme Court decision that directed us to act and ignores the evidence before our own eyes."

Influential business interests, ranging from the Southern Co., a utility, to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are making it clear that Congress will have to step in to stop the administration from reaching that far. The House-passed climate bill prevents the EPA from using the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, power plants and a few other major emitters, despite the Supreme Court ruling that gave the agency the right to do so. Democrats made that concession to win votes for the overall package, but industry groups are trying to enshrine it in law without a climate bill.

"We think it would be premature for EPA to move ahead," said Southern spokesman Jason Cuevas. "We are sharing that information with people on the Hill."

U.N. Foundation President Timothy Wirth called it "the number-one goal of the industry, to defang the EPA."

Obama officials, utility executives and environmental advocates all say they'd prefer Congress to complete legislation this year. But even backers of a bill, such as American Electric Power chief executive Michael G. Morris, are skeptical that will happen, given the lack of enthusiasm among moderate Democrats and nearly all Republicans. "I don't see anything happening in 2010."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company