By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 10, 2010; 5:03 PM
A Senate resolution to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases failed narrowly Thursday, providing a temporary respite to environmental activists hoping to enact a mandatory cap on emissions before the end of the year.
But the 47 to 53 vote showed that even in the wake of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Congress remains divided over how best to address climate change. The contentious debate, in which some lawmakers suggested federal regulation would strike a devastating blow to the economy, suggested the Senate is far from decided on whether to put a price on the industrial emissions that stem from everyday activities such as lighting a home or driving a car.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who drafted the resolution that would have barred the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, said the central question was whether Congress or the administration would set the rules for curbing carbon dioxide. EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson has already proposed rules that would subject large greenhouse gas emitters -- such as coal-fired utilities and oil refineries -- to federal regulation starting next year.
"Politically accountable members of the House and Senate, not unelected bureaucrats, must develop our nation's energy and climate policies," said Murkowski, whose resolution of disapproval would have overturned EPA's December 2009 finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare. "I've said this before, but it bears repeating: Congress will not pass bad legislation in order to stave off bad regulations."
Six Senate Democrats -- Evan Bayh (Ind.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Mark Pryor (Ark.) and John D. Rockefeller IV (W. Va.) -- voted in favor of the Murkowski resolution, and no Republicans opposed it.
Several backers, including moderate Maine GOP Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe, said they were still open to the idea of Congress crafting a climate bill. But it is very unclear what form that measure would take, because there are now several competing proposals. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) just introduced legislation Wednesday that would promote energy efficiency and renewable fuels but would not place a price on carbon. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) met with key committee chairmen Thursday in an effort to draft a compromise Democratic proposal that would impose an overall cap on greenhouse gases.
"They're all over the place, which tells you there's no clear direction," said Bruce Josten, executive vice president for government affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "How many energy bills are floating around just in the Senate right now? It's very confused right now."
But Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, said he was confident the Senate would pass climate legislation next month provided President Obama continues to press for the measure.
"We have a political moment now," he said. "It's sad that it takes a tragedy in the gulf to force people to reevaluate our relationship with energy."
But while Americans continue to express support for federal regulation of greenhouse gases -- 71 percent of respondents in a new Washington Post/ABC News poll said they backed the idea -- advocates are encountering resistance even in relatively liberal states such as California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) is fighting a ballot initiative financed by oil companies to overturn the state's mandatory carbon limits.
In a meeting with The Post's editorial board Thursday, Schwarzenegger said the oil industry sees California's greenhouse gas limits "as a threat. They see that they can put the final nail in the coffin on a national level" if they overturn them. "We are confident we can win this battle, but a lot of work is ahead of us."
In the short term, however, environmentalists were relieved their cause did not suffer a major blow Thursday.
"A victory is a victory, and turning back this amendment is a good thing, and puts the Senate clearly on record supporting the fact the global warming pollution endangers public health and the environment," said Dan Lashof, who directs the climate center at the Natural Resources Defense Center, an advocacy group. "The only way to resolve these issues about what is the extent of the EPA's authority and what direction Congress should give the EPA, is in the context of comprehensive legislation."