Politics: The Republican War on the EPA Begins—But Will They Overreach?

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EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson Credit: Stew Milne/AP

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson finally got to use her parking space on Capitol Hill this morning. Jackson was the star witness at the newly Republican-run House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Power hearings on the proposed “Energy Tax Prevention Act.”

What’s that? You weren’t aware that there was an energy tax that needed preventing? Well, that’s because the Republican majority has decided to frame its battle against the EPA’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gases as fighting energy taxes, because greenhouse gas regulations equal higher energy costs, which then kill jobs. (That’s why the bill to repeal health care reform went down as the “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.”) As Fred Upton, the new Republican Chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said in his opening statement:

Cap and trade legislation failed in the last Congress, but now we face the threat of Environmental Protection Agency bureaucrats imposing the same agenda through a series of regulations. Like cap-and-trade, these regulations would boost the cost of energy, not just for homeowners and car owners, but for businesses both large and small.  EPA may be starting by regulating only the largest power plants and factories, but we will all feel the impact of higher prices and fewer jobs.

So the Republicans want to block the EPA’s ability to use the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. To Upton and his Republican colleagues, the decades-old Clean Air Act was never meant to deal with greenhouse gases, just traditional air pollutants like soot and sulfur dioxide. (Not that they’re huge fans of that kind of regulation either.) EPA action on CO2 represents regulatory overreach, with the EPA taking authority that should belong to Congress—something members of Congress really don’t like.

The problem with that argument—the basis for the GOP’s war against the EPA—is that the agency’s authority seems grounded in a decision by a higher power: the Supreme Court. In 2007 the Court found that the EPA does in fact have the authority, and the legal obligation, to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act if the agency’s scientists found that CO2 posed a public danger. As it turns out, even former President George W. Bush’s EPA administrator at the time, Stephen Johnson, believed that the Supreme Court ruling meant that the agency was obliged to declare greenhouse gases a threat to human welfare and prepare a plan for regulation. Johnson even sent a proposed endangerment finding to the White House at the end of 2007, though officials managed to avoid it by not opening their email.

For her part Jackson—who withstood more than two hours of pointed questioning from Republican committee members—tried to frame the issue in terms of the EPA’s larger responsibility to safeguard clean air. To her, the Republican assault on the agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases would water down the Clean Air Act itself, with consequences for the health of the nation:

The bill appears to be part of a broader effort in this Congress to delay, weaken, or eliminate Clean Air Act protections of the American public. I respectfully ask the members of this Committee to keep in mind that EPA’s implementation of the Clean Air Act saves millions of American children and adults from the debilitating and expensive illnesses that occur when smokestacks and tailpipes release unrestricted amounts of harmful pollution into the air we breathe.

That argument might be the EPA’s best chance to beat back Republican attacks. There’s considerable support on Capitol Hill to block the agency from regulating greenhouse gases. Republicans are lockstep in favor of such a measure, which wouldn’t have a difficult time passing the House. The Senate, where the Democrats still hold a majority, is a different story, but a number of more conservative Democrats who hail from states heavily dependent on fossil fuels have already announced their opposition to regulation. Jay Rockefeller, a Democratic senator from West Virginia, has already introduced a bill that would delay EPA regulations for two years. The power of the filibuster means that opponents of EPA regulation would need at least 60 votes, but that might not be an insurmountable obstacle. The White House has intimated that President Obama would veto any such bill, but he might be faced with a difficult choice if opponents managed to attach it to a vital piece of legislation, like an act to raise the country’s debt ceiling.

Polls, though, show general public support for the EPA and for the regulation of greenhouse gases. And there’s considerable doubt that the EPA’s possible greenhouse gas regulations—which will hardly be strict—will result in some kind of jobs apocalypse. A new report by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts estimated that the EPA’s stricter pollution rules for power plants would actually create the equivalent of 290,000 full-time jobs, as companies invest in new pollution controls and replace retiring power plants. As Mindy Luber, the president of the investor advocacy coalition Ceres, said in a press conference:

The long-term benefits from a cleaner industry, cleaner air and better public health for our citizens far exceed the short-term costs, and sticking our heads in the sand has never been America’s way of meeting essential challenges. The rhetoric and debate is high and heated. The important thing for all of us … is to look at the facts.

Job creation estimates are, admittedly, a dicey proposition. As the report’s opponents argued, if regulations do cause higher electricity prices over time, that might be enough to force some businesses to close down or move out of the U.S. But there’s far less doubt about the public health benefits of environmental regulations over the years, including in cleaner air. The American Clean Skies Foundation put out a report last month found that cleaner air regulations enforced by the EPA have saved hundreds of thousands of lives since the early 1970s and averted billions in health care spending. (Download a copy here.) And that’s a message that environmentalists are taking to Congress and the public, knowing that while climate change might seem like an abstract threat, worry over health is a proven motivator.

Will that be enough to thwart the GOP? It might depend on the Republicans themselves. In the past, when the GOP has surged into power, they’ve had a habit of overreaching—including on environmental issues. (Remember the early Bush Administration push to suspend arsenic restrictions in drinking water? Arsenic! The campaign ad writes itself!) The Republican leadership has said they’ll be more cautious this time around, and at today’s hearing GOP Representative Joe Barton pushed back against Jackson’s accusation that the greenhouse gas bill was really about gutting the Clean Air Act. But it was only a couple of weeks ago that former Speaker—and possible future Presidential candidate—Newt Gingrich called for dismantling the EPA altogether. The self-destruct timer may already be counting down.

Update: Fixed link for American Clean Skies Foundation report.