By Jean Chemnick
June 18, 2014
Four former Republican U.S. EPA administrators praised the agency’s climate change rule for existing power plants today in a Senate hearing room packed with coal miners expressing fear that the proposal would strangle their industry.
The administrators told an Environment and Public Works subcommittee that current Administrator Gina McCarthy did what the Clean Air Act required in her proposal aimed at curbing the power sector’s greenhouse gases. The rule was printed in the Federal Register today, beginning a four-month public comment period.
Christine Todd Whitman, George W. Bush’s first EPA administrator and a former Republican governor of New Jersey, said she was “frustrated” by continued assertions by fossil industry groups and Capitol Hill Republicans that EPA was overreaching on carbon regulation.
“The issue has been settled,” Whitman told the Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee. “EPA does have the authority. The law says so; the Supreme Court has said so twice. That matter should now I believe be put to rest.”
She advised those concerned about the proposal to focus their comments on its details and practicalities, not on “EPA’s broad authority to promulgate it.”
In a briefing with reporters before the hearing, Whitman called the draft rule “creative” and “workable,” but she predicted it would undergo some changes before it becomes final next June.
Bill Reilly, George H.W. Bush’s EPA administrator, said that climate skepticism was “simply not a tenable position.” U.S. action on climate is necessary to show international leadership on the issue, he said. There’s a need, he added, to spur action by other governments, especially China.
Bill Ruckelshaus, the agency’s first administrator who served under Presidents Nixon and Reagan, and Lee Thomas, who served under Reagan, said the science of climate change is settled, especially after the May release of the National Climate Assessment, which attempted to show that dangerous warming is already impacting the United States.
“We know that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are warming the atmosphere,” Thomas said. “We know they have contributed to a more than 1.5-degree Fahrenheit rise in temperatures since” preindustrial levels.
Despite the deep partisan divisions that exist now, the four former administrators told reporters there is evidence that consensus is growing on climate change and may eventually spur members of their own party to come to the table. They pointed to a poll released today by the Wall Street Journal that shows Americans are generally supportive of EPA’s bid to curb power plant carbon.
But Ruckelshaus noted that it wasn’t public opinion that spurred Nixon to sign the law leading to the establishment of EPA.
“He was responding to public demands, not public opinion yay or nay. They were demanding that something be done,” he said.
The drumbeat for climate action has not yet become loud enough to convince Republicans they can and must engage on the issue, he added.
Among foes of the rule, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange (R) questioned whether EPA indeed has authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act’s Section 111(d), especially since EPA has already finalized a rule for other emissions from power plants. He called the draft rule a bid to usurp state authority over the power grid by going “beyond the fence line” to compel more emissions reductions than can be achieved at individual power plants.
“I think what the EPA is attempting to do in this case is regulate at the federal level, removing almost all of the discretion that would usually be delegated to the states,” he said.
But Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) confronted Strange, saying Alabama has lost numerous lawsuits challenging EPA rules, including the Obama administration’s tailpipe rule. This track record shows, she said, the courts are likely to defer to EPA on any challenges to the existing power plant rule.
The hearing went on before coal miners and others dressed in work clothes and hard hats — a demonstration organized by the National Mining Association’s “Count on Coal” campaign. Organizers said 80 workers participated.
An economic impact analysis for the June 2 proposal acknowledges that it is likely to make up to 19 percent of existing coal-fired power “uneconomical,” though it envisions that more than a third of power will still come from coal in 2030.
‘There are going to be winners and losers’
Whitman acknowledged during the meeting with reporters that a phase-down of coal-fired generation may have a stronger impact on some communities than on others.
“Any law you sign, there are going to be winners and losers,” she said. “What you have to do is make your decision on what’s the greatest good for the greatest number of people. And then do all that you can to mitigate the downside for those who will be hurt.”
Coal-heavy regions could benefit from the expansion of the nuclear industry under the new rules, she said, especially if component manufacturing is located in those states.
Reilly, who presided over the implementation of EPA’s acid rain trading program, said historically low natural gas prices had done more to edge coal out of the market than federal rules had done. But he said that even the now-popular acid rain program initially adversely affected some parts of the country more than others. Congress and the administration could offset those impacts by funding job training programs and other initiatives, he said.
But Republican senators said the agency’s rule showed the administration’s insensitivity to the needs of fossil fuels communities and states. The proposal allows states to decide how carbon intensity requirements would be met.
EPW ranking member David Vitter (R-La.) said EPA’s claim to have provided states with flexibility is a “red herring.”
“States are forced into achieving questionable emission reduction targets from a limited menu of economically damaging and legally questionable options,” he said, adding states are “left little choice but to join or create regional cap-and-trade programs, which achieves the administration’s goal of making sure we all pay more for energy.”
The proposed rule doesn’t mandate that states participate in regional cap-and-trade programs like the Northeast’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, though it does signal that those programs will be allowed as a means of compliance.
Vitter said that cap-and-trade programs like RGGI go hand in hand with higher electricity prices, something that Louisiana’s lower-income population cannot absorb.
“Fifty-six percent of Louisiana families spend an average of 21 percent of their after-tax income on energy. They simply cannot afford the higher electricity bills that will inevitably result from this rule,” he said.
But RGGI Commissioner Kelly Speakes-Backman said in a recent interview that one of the reasons states might consider regional programs is that they have proved to be cost-effective in the past. The nine-state compact has managed to reduce power sector emissions by 40 percent since 2005 while growing its regional economy by more than 7 percent.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) told the panel that his energy-producing state stood to lose from the rule as well, as coal and then natural gas come under tighter federal control.
The rule is part of President Obama’s bid to “nationalize our electricity grid, just as he has tried to nationalize our health care system,” said Barrasso, a medical doctor who has kept up a steady drumbeat of speeches and statements against the Affordable Care Act.
“This will occur as EPA rejects in whole or in part state energy plans for reducing carbon emissions and imposing their own federal plans under the EPA’s proposed new regulations for existing coal-fired power plants,” he said.
If states fail to submit plans that EPA deems to satisfy its rules, the Clean Air Act provides for federal implementation plans. But EPA has rarely used this authority, and in this case, it would likely happen after Obama leaves office.
But Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said that although he understood that lawmakers from fossil-fuel states are eager to protect their home-state industries, they should “look at the other side of the ledger.”
States like his own face costs associated with rising sea levels, more frequent storms and other effects of climate change, he said. Coastal homes have been damaged, and more hot days are driving increased smog leading to asthma attacks, he said in his opening remarks.
“Our side of the ledger counts too,” he said. “Don’t pretend we don’t exist.”