Lawmakers move to restrain EPA on climate change

By Juliet Eilperin and David A. Fahrenthold
Friday, March 5, 2010

As climate change legislation stalled in the Senate, the Obama administration noted that it had a workable -- although admittedly unwieldy -- Plan B. If Congress wouldn't cap U.S. emissions, officials said, the Environmental Protection Agency would do it instead.

Now, even Plan B may be in trouble.

On Thursday, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) introduced a bill that would put a two-year freeze on the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gases from power plants. His was the latest of various congressional proposals -- from both chambers and both parties -- designed to delay or overturn the EPA's regulations.

It is unclear how far Rockefeller's bill will go. Even if it passed, it could face a presidential veto. But environmentalists are worried that the measure could attract moderate Democrats, who are worried, in turn, about driving up the prices of fossil fuels such as oil and coal.

And, in a broader sense, activists are concerned about a loss of momentum for action on climate change.

Since the House passed a climate bill last summer, there has been disappointment in Copenhagen, gridlock in the Senate and increased skepticism in opinion polls. Now, some environmentalists say, it turns out the old worst-case scenario -- a crackdown by the EPA as the only option -- might not be as bad as it can get.

Rockefeller's legislation would not affect the EPA's plans to limit greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. But it would prevent the agency from implementing -- or even doing much work on -- caps on emissions from such "stationary sources" as power plants and factories. Experts say the bill could postpone regulations for as much as four years.

Rockefeller said the two-year delay would allow time for Congress to impose its own rules on emissions and, perhaps, for technological breakthroughs to reduce emissions from burning fossil fuels.

"Today, we took important action to safeguard jobs, the coal industry and the entire economy," Rockefeller said. West Virginia is a major coal producer.

Rockefeller added, "Congress, not the EPA, must be the ideal decision-maker on such a challenging issue."

Oil and mining industries started lobbying for Rockefeller's proposal as soon as it was introduced, although Lou Hayden, a policy analyst for the American Petroleum Institute, said Rockefeller didn't go far enough. Petroleum industry groups have said that higher fuel costs would be a heavy weight on the U.S. economy. "We don't know why [the freeze on EPA authority] isn't made permanent," Hayden said.

Several other Democrats have already signaled their unease about the administration's tackling climate change without explicit congressional approval.

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