How the War Against the EPA Has Helped Lead to a Budget Showdown

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Mike Theiler / Reuters

As I write this, House Speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama seem to still be engaged in last-minute negotiations to stave off a government shutdown. Will it work? I have no idea—this is one of those days when I’m glad that I’m not a DC reporter. But it’s worth noting that one of the key stumbling blocks to an agreement has been—and could continue to be—policy provisions by Republicans that would block the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ability to regulate greenhouse gases, as well as watering down other environmental regulations. (The other big point of disagreement seems to involve funding for Planned Parenthood, which is dumb for these reasons.) So, yes, we’re apparently holding up the budget and preparing to furlough 800,000 government workers over policy disagreements worth about $12 billion—or about 0.3$ of the $1.27 trillion budget.

The latest word this afternoon is that riders that would have blocked EPA climate regulations and other environmental protections have been dropped from the budget negotiations—although the situation is still, as they say, fluid. But there’s no denying the fact that the environment—and the EPA—has emerged as one of the top targets of Republicans (as well as a number of conservative Democrats) looking to cut the budget. And it’s not because environmental protection is expensive—Obama’s proposed 2012 budget would have given $8.97 billion to the EPA, which is a drop in a drop in the bucket of overall federal spending. This is about ideology—the idea that the EPA is a “rogue agency,” as California Democrat Dennis Cardoza put it. Even industry leaders are noting the intensity of the fight. “The EPA is under siege,” Linda Fisher, chief sustainability officer for DuPont and a former staffer at EPA, told me earlier this week.

If this were just about climate change regulations—which aren’t likely to do a whole lot more than require power plants to improve efficiency—maybe a compromise would be worth it. But it’s about far more. The continuing resolution—the seven-month spending measure passed by the House in February—had nearly 20 riders that stuck at the EPA. They included measures that would block the agency from issuing new regulations on particulate pollution, along with emissions of mercury, arsenic and other toxic byproducts of coal combustion. Other riders would limit regulation of mountaintop-removal mining and coal-ash disposal. (Coal ash is the nasty stuff left over after we burn coal—as much as 5.4 million cubic yards of the stuff spilled in Tennessee a little more than a year ago.) “This is an unprecedented assault on the EPA,” says Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund. “For the first time in four decades Congress would actually be repealing parts of the Clean Air Act—a law that has been the bedrock of keeping our air safe.”

Even if a last-minute budget compromise is reached that doesn’t include these riders, you can bet that pressure on the EPA and on environmental protection will only intensify. 64 senators voted this week for some kind of restriction on EPA climate regulations—the only reason legislation didn’t earn the 60 vote needed to bust a filibuster is that the votes were scattered among four different bills. The next big debate may come over mercury emissions. The EPA recently proposed its first-ever regulations of mercury emissions from coal plants, regulations that were more than 20 years in the making. Mercury is found in some coal deposits—when the rock is burned, mercury can be released into the atmosphere, where it can eventually make its way to lakes, streams and the oceans. From there, mercury works its way up the food chain to fish—especially long-lived predatory species like tuna that are high on the food chain—and then into human beings. I should know—I recently had my body tested for mercury and found I had levels that were more than twice the EPA’s recommended limit. That’s not a huge health risk for me—though there have been studies connecting high mercury levels with heart disease—but for fetuses and young children, mercury can be a potent neurotoxin. This is not debated.

Yet some in industry have pushed back against mercury regulations, claiming high compliance costs, and conservatives in Congress will almost certainly join them. That doesn’t make sense even to some in the energy business. “Let’s not bicker over the economic consequences of people consuming mercury,” Ralph Izzo, the head of the Public Service Enterprise Group in New Jersey, told me earlier this week. “[The EPA] drew a line in the sand that is some 20 years in the making. I think that’s the right approach.”

I do too—and I think the American public agrees when it comes to pollution and health. But for conservatives in Congress, public health isn’t a reason to stop their war against the EPA—and maybe, neither is a government shutdown.