Rockefeller Delay Measure Would Give Air Polluters A Free Pass
By Keith Schneider
U.S. Climate Action Network
More than 1 billion tons of coal are mined and burned in the United States each year, almost all of it to generate electricity in the nation’s more than 600 coal-fired utilities. Those utilities pour 2.67 billion tons of climate changing carbon emissions into the atmosphere every year, according to the Energy Information Administration, or 41 percent of the total 6.4 billion tons of carbon emissions released by all sectors of the American economy.
Last December EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, acting on a two-year-old Supreme Court decision, formally declared that carbon dioxide and five other climate changing-gases endangered public health and welfare. She announced the Obama administration’s intent under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas pollution from vehicles, heavy industry, and the coal-fired utility sector.
Jackson’s announcement, which was anticipated by environmentalists and business executives alike, prompted a number of legislative responses from Republicans and Democrats to block the EPA. Last June one of those proposals, a resolution introduced by Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski formally disapproving the agency’s work on carbon emissions, was defeated in the Senate 53-47. Six Democrats voted with the Republicans.
One Down, More to Go
A second measure, S. 3072, introduced in March 2010 by Senator Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from West Virginia, the nation’s second largest coal-producing state, is likely to come before the Senate later this year or next. Seven similar proposals to pre-empt or delay federal authority to reduce global warming pollution have been introduced in the House.
Senator Rockefeller’s bill (S.3072), which calls for staying the administration’s regulation of greenhouse pollution for two years, represents the next big showdown in Congress over climate change. The Rockefeller bill is designed to give polluters free rein to dump carbon pollution into the atmosphere. The bill releases polluters from their responsibility to keep communities and people safe from harmful emissions. And it displays the arrogance of the energy industry to push Congress into doing its bidding, regardless of the consequences.
President Obama vowed to veto Sen. Murkowski’s resolution of disapproval and the White House said the president would do the same if Sen. Rockefeller’s pre-emption bill passed.
Popular Support For Reducing Pollution
Public opinion polls consistently show that Americans support confronting polluters. One commissioned late in August by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that 60 percent of respondents favored EPA action to control greenhouse pollution, and 34 percent opposed. Some 54 percent of those polled said they felt confident in the EPA’s ability to effectively regulate greenhouse gas pollution; 51 percent said they support the agency issuing the regulations while 40 percent were opposed. A clear majority of respondents, 68 percent, said the government must “do more to hold corporations accountable for their pollution.”
“Essentially, what Rockefeller is proposing would tell the EPA – at least for two years, although we know that justice delayed is often justice denied! – that it has to be asleep at the switch, that it must not hold polluters accountable, that it must look the other way whole Big Oil and Big Coal trash the environment,” wrote the author of NRDC’s MarkUp blog. “Is that the lesson the Senate learned from the Gulf of Mexico disaster?”
Push From Energy Industry To Pollute
Energy industry executives, meanwhile, are investing heavily in candidates sympathetic to their view that climate change has no basis in scientific fact, and that new regulations are an economic burden at the moment when the nation can least afford them. The first assertion is disputed by scientists and the harrowing record heat, flooding, glacial melting, and violent storms experienced by most of the planet this summer. The second assertion is the standard response from industry when confronted by pollution that requires government action.
Sen. Rockefeller’s opposition to controlling carbon emissions, he said in a floor speech in June, is rooted in economics and the law. West Virginia’s coal industry produced 144 million tons last year, employed 22,000 people, and made its presence felt in Washington, Charleston, and every one of the state’s 55 counties. He says that the regulation of carbon emissions is a change in policy so substantial that Congress, and not the executive branch, should direct government action.
“We must send a strong and urgent message that the fate of our economy and our workers, including our coal workers, should never be placed solely in the hands of the Environmental Protection Agency,” said Sen. Rockefeller. “The elected people and not the unelected EPA have constitutional responsibility here.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said earlier this year that he plans to allow a vote this year on Sen. Rockefeller’s proposal. It would be a close vote in the Senate. The Rockefeller measure has six Democratic co-sponsors, all from coal-producing states, and all of whom voted against the earlier Murkowski resolution. The companion House measure has 14 Democratic co-sponsors.
Environmental leaders are looking to the White House for help. “It is up to the Obama administration to promptly comply with the Supreme Court by using EPA’s authority to reduce global warming pollution,” Daniel Weiss, director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, told reporters in July. “The White House must also launch a vigorous defense of that authority in the face of attacks from big oil, big coal and their congressional allies.”
David Moulton, director of climate policy at the Wilderness Society, said his group “will be focused very heavily on defending EPA” against efforts to block climate rules. “EPA is the backstop and the president is the backstop for EPA,” Moulton said.
“It’s not clear where the Rockefeller amendment shakes out in all of this,” added Nathan Willcox, Environment America’s federal global warming program director. “But the less Congress does on energy and climate, the more important it will be that the Clean Air Act can be allowed to do its job and cut global warming pollution from the largest polluters.”
Keith Schneider, a journalist and producer, is senior writer for the U.S. Climate Action Network. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org