Lawmakers move to restrain EPA on climate change

By Juliet Eilperin and David A. Fahrenthold
Friday, March 5, 2010; A02

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.

Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) are co-sponsoring a "resolution of disapproval" introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). It calls for Congress to overturn the EPA's finding that greenhouse gases are a danger to public health and welfare, the trigger for the agency's efforts to regulate them.

In the House, Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.) and Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) have introduced a measure similar to Murkowski's. Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) proposes to strip the EPA of its authority to regulate pollution linked to global warming. And House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.) and Reps. Alan B. Mollohan (W.Va.) and Rick Boucher (D-Va.) have said they will introduce a companion bill to Rockefeller's.

On Thursday, EPA spokeswoman Adora Andy said in a written statement that the agency was reviewing Rockefeller's bill.

"It is important to note that Senator Rockefeller's bill, unlike Senator Murkowski's resolution, does not attempt to overturn or deny the scientific fact that unchecked greenhouse gas pollution threatens the well-being of the American people," Andy said.

Centrists such as Joshua S. Freed, who directs the Clean Energy Initiative at the think tank Third Way, say Rockefeller's proposal might represent the best they can hope for, because it "preserves EPA's ability to act after two years and creates a clock for Congress to get moving on a substantive way."

Frank O'Donnell, head of the group Clean Air Watch, said the Obama administration has made so many concessions that it is "backpedaling faster than a quarterback in the NFL."

"It's as if the Obama administration is running scared from a Congress controlled by the Democrats," O'Donnell said. "The more concessions they make, the fiercer the opposition seems to be."

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