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White House presses for new climate, wilderness protections

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 24, 2010; 12:00 AM

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday that it will regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and oil refineries next year in an attempt to curb global warming.

The move, coming on the same day the Interior Department unveiled a plan to protect a broader swath of the nation's wilderness, demonstrated that the Obama administration is prepared to push its environmental agenda through regulation where it has failed on Capitol Hill, potentially setting up a battle next year with congressional Republicans.

The two decisions were unrelated and are in their initial stages. But both could have broad ramifications, and both sparked an immediate outcry from key GOP lawmakers and some affected industry groups.

EPA officials said they would set new performance standards requiring stricter pollution technology for electric utilities and oil refineries, which together account for almost 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

"We are following through on our commitment to proceed in a measured and careful way to reduce [greenhouse gas] pollution that threatens the health and welfare of Americans, and contributes to climate change," EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said in a statement.

Later in the day, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that the Bureau of Land Management would reassess which lands under its control should be designated "wild lands," making them eligible for congressional wilderness protection and barring activities such as drilling and mining unless they were redesignated through another public process.

"This is a fresh path that we are charting," Salazar said, standing beside two of his top deputies along with representatives from the outdoor recreation industry and a hunting and fishing group in Denver. "Americans love the wild places where they hunt, fish, hike and get away from it all, and they expect these lands to be protected wisely on their behalf."

But Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), who is slated to chair the House Natural Resources Committee in the new Congress, questioned whether Salazar had the authority to make the change.

"This backdoor approach is intended to circumvent both the people who will be directly affected and Congress," Hastings said in a statement. "I have to question why this announcement is being made only after Congress adjourned for the year. The Natural Resources Committee will fully review this decision next year and its impact on our nation's economic competitiveness and ability to keep and create jobs."

Several environmental experts said it made sense that the administration would exercise its regulatory powers more aggressively now that it has fewer allies in Congress.

"When Congress resists action on pressing environmental issues, regulation provides a way forward," said Thomas E. Lovejoy, University Professor in Science and Public Policy at George Mason University.

And Jeffrey R. Holmstead, who headed EPA's air and radiation office under George W. Bush and now represents utilities and other greenhouse gas emitters at the law firm Bracewell & Guiliani, said the agency has to navigate a fine line with its new rules.

"If they are reasonable and sensible, as EPA claims they will be, then they won't do much to reduce emissions - and the environmental community will be upset. If the regulations actually force companies to make meaningful emission reductions, they will drive up energy costs and be very expensive - and everyone else will be upset," Holmstead said. "The Obama folks won't be able to have it both ways."

The EPA announcement, which came as part of a settlement of two 2008 lawsuits, will propose new standards for power plants in July 2011 and for refineries in December 2011, followed by final standards in May 2012 and November 2012, respectively.

During a telephone briefing for reporters, Gina McCarthy, EPA's assistant administrator for air and radiation, said she could not spell out how significantly the new rules will reduce the nation's contribution to global warming.

"You will see measurable reductions," she said. "It's way too early in the game right now to talk about what the standards will look like."

Power plants account for 35 percent of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions while oil refineries account for 3 percent; combined with an earlier EPA rule targeting cars and light trucks, the agency is poised to regulate sectors accounting for more than 55 percent of the nation's total greenhouse gas emissions.

According to an analysis by the World Resources Institute, the new rules could deliver about one-third of the carbon cuts the United States has pledged to make by 2020. "By focusing on the largest polluters, EPA can take a big bite out of U.S. emissions," said WRI senior fellow Franz Litz.

The EPA's McCarthy said the agency would require that existing and new utilities and refineries use only "what technologies are available." It would not set an overall limit on greenhouse gases such as one that was included in the cap-and-trade bill passed by the House in 2009 but that died in the Senate.

"This is not about a cap-and-trade program," she said. "It is not in any way trying to get into the area where Congress will be establishing law at some point in the future, we hope."

But Charles T. Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, said in an interview that the proposal was unrealistic and that his industry will urge lawmakers to block EPA's move.

"There is no best available technology. The only thing you can do is cut production," Drevna said. "I see bipartisan concern as to where EPA and the administration are attempting to take climate regulation - how they're going to get there and what it's going to do to the economy."

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who is in line to chair the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee next year, seemed to agree . "The fact is there are serious questions about EPA's decision to move forward with these job-killing regulations that will usurp power from states - violating the principles of federalism that are the backbone of the Clean Air Act," his spokesman Kurt Bardella said in an e-mailed statement.

And while Hastings has voiced concerns over the new wild lands policy, the Pew Environment Group's Mike Matz said it would actually help Congress decide which areas deserves long-standing protections.

"It is in everyone's interest for members of Congress to have better information based on sounder science and analysis, including inventorying the full value of these lands," Matz said.

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