Oil, gas and coal interests that spent millions to help elect Republicans this year are moving to take advantage of expanded GOP power in Washington and state capitals to thwart Obama administration environmental rules.
Industry lobbyists made their pitch in private meetings last week with dozens of state legislators at a summit of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an industry-financed conservative state policy group.
The lobbyists and legislators considered several model bills to be introduced across the country next year, designed to give states more power to block or delay new Obama administration environmental standards, including new limits on power-plant emissions.
The industry’s strategy aims to combat a renewed push by President Obama to carve out climate change as a top priority for his final two years in office. The White House has vowed to continue using executive authority to enact more environmental limits, and the issue is shaping up to be a major flash point heading into the 2016 presidential election.
With support from industry lobbyists, many Republicans are planning to make the Environmental Protection Agency a primary political target, presenting it as a symbol of the kind of big-government philosophy they think can unify social and economic conservatives in opposition.
“There is a palpable anger at the EPA in America,” said Nate Bell, a Republican state legislator from rural Arkansas who championed a measure at the ALEC meeting supporting the replacement of the agency. “Mention them, and you will get laughed out of any coffee shop or feed store in my district.”
The power of anti-EPA sentiment in Washington was evident last week when the incoming chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), a vocal denier of science showing a human role in climate change, sent a letter demanding that the EPA withdraw the new power-plant limits.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and incoming Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have discussed how to stop the agency from moving forward, efforts that could include denying funding the EPA would need to enact the regulations.
Meanwhile, underscoring the extent to which fossil-fuel industry allies will pressure Republicans seen as squishy on key issues, the group Americans for Prosperity began an advertising campaign in two dozen House districts after the November elections, pressing GOP lawmakers to oppose tax breaks for wind-energy firms. The organization was founded and funded in part by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch.
The industry’s aggressive posture in the weeks after the elections is raising anxiety among environmental groups and their allies, some of whom had poured tens of millions of dollars into losing efforts to boost Democratic campaigns — but have seen Obama’s recent climate actions, including an emissions-reducing deal with China, as major triumphs.
Two dozen chief executives of national environmental groups met last week in the Washington offices of Friends of the Earth to talk about how to respond to what participants called “the assault” by fossil-fuel industry allies. The groups plan to solicit contributions from major liberal donors to support a new organization to counter the industry’s growing effectiveness on the state level.
The advocacy groups worry about the role played by ALEC, which has a successful track record of designing conservative legislation on issues such as guns, criminal justice and voting that has won widespread passage in state capitals.
If enacted by states, ALEC’s measures targeting the EPA could be used to delay the federal rulemaking process, fuel lawsuits and build public opposition to an environmental movement that once had bipartisan support, environmental advocates say. If the industry could delay implementation of the carbon regulations until after Obama leaves office, a Republican president could reverse the limits.
Aliya Haq, a climate change specialist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the ALEC proposals would “handcuff” states just as they would be required to comply with new federal standards. She said that “ALEC and their cronies would love to see as much delay as possible.”
In Washington, Democrats are gearing up for major battles to defend what many see as a significant piece of Obama’s legacy. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who is losing her chairmanship of the Senate’s environment committee to Inhofe, foreshadowed the hostilities in a statement to The Washington Post, saying the panel is “now dominated by deniers on climate and very strong allies of the polluters.” She said she would “use every tool at my disposal” to fight industry efforts to combat Obama’s climate change initiatives.
In addition to the fights over power-plant emissions, GOP lawmakers are expected to push proposals that could roll back proposed rules on ozone pollution — rules described last month by American Petroleum Institute chief executive Jack Gerard as “the most expensive regulation ever imposed on the American public.”
A critical component of the industry’s strategy is an effort to apply pressure on Washington from state capitals, where the GOP has gained substantial ground.
Republicans now control 31 governorships and more than two-thirds of state legislative chambers, a near-record level of dominance, GOP officials say.
The industry’s approach was evident at last week’s ALEC meeting, where officials of fossil-fuel firms such as Koch Industries and Peabody Energy mixed with lawmakers and ALEC organizers to discuss and sometimes edit proposed model bills.
The Post was granted rare access to some parts of the meeting, which was attended by more than 400 people, including industry representatives and state officials from across the country. Multiple participants in the private sessions that focused on environmental and energy policy provided accounts of what happened. In one closed-door meeting, for instance, Sarah Magruder Lyle, a former Energy Department official who is now a vice president at the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers association, made the case for a proposal that would scale back Obama administration rules on ozone. Her argument, a spokesman for her trade group said, was that the ozone rule was “threatening states’ economies while providing little benefit to the environment or to consumers.”
A separate proposal debated by ALEC participants would give legislatures a role in setting state limits for carbon emissions, including the requirement of a cost-benefit analysis.
Another proposed resolution would call for abolishing the EPA and replacing it with a committee of state officials. The idea was put aside after some corporate lobbyists cautioned that it could hurt ALEC’s credibility.
Nevertheless, participants said, the anti-EPA feelings ran so deep at the meeting that an ALEC task force weighing the various proposals agreed to create a “working group” to further consider ways state legislatures could support replacing the federal agency.
“Everywhere I travel in my district, people tell me they are seeing the consequences of EPA overreach,” said state Rep. Yvette Herrell, a New Mexico Republican who attended the meeting. She cited “astronomical” rises in utility bills for her state, which she said relies on coal-fired power plants.
Industry lobbyists said that, after the sweeping GOP victories last month, their clients were optimistic that they could better position themselves against the perceived threat of more regulations.
Scott Segal of the Bracewell & Giuliani firm in Washington said lower public confidence in the EPA will heighten pressure on politicians of both parties to “be sure that benefits of proposed rules are properly calculated and that they do in fact outweigh the costs.”
Industry and state government officials meeting last week also considered ways they could undercut the credibility of the environmental movement and its leading spokesmen. One session held Thursday, called “Big Green Radicals,” included discussion of a national campaign attacking celebrity activists.
Among other things, the campaign has posted a few billboards of prominent environmentalists such as actor Robert Redford, with the headline: “Demands green living. Flies on private jets.”