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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Blocking the EPA

Air Date: Week of

Senator Lisa Murkowski

The Environmental Protection Agency is writing new rules limiting greenhouse gas emissions from cars and industrial plants, but some members of Congress want to stop the agency from addressing climate change. Living on Earth's Mitra Taj reports on an upcoming Senate vote to revoke the EPA's authority to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant.


YOUNG: The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced tough new emissions standards for cars and trucks—the country’s first limits on greenhouse gases from vehicles.

And early next year the EPA will ask big industrial polluters to cut back on C02. These moves come thanks to the EPA’s new authority to regulate greenhouse gases. But that upsets some members of Congress who think the agency has no business regulating its way to climate change policy. Living on Earth’s Mitra Taj reports.

TAJ: In the late 1990s, environmental advocate Joe Mendelson was thinking about how to get the government to take action on climate change. As a lawyer for the Sierra Club, he saw potential in the Clean Air Act:

MENDELSON: The definition of what a pollutant is under the Clean Air Act —is very broad. It’s basically things that are emitted into the air and harm public health and welfare.

TAJ: Though the Environmental Protection Agency was using the Clean Air Act to limit pollutants like lead and carbon monoxide, it was reluctant to put carbon dioxide into the same category. The Bush administration said the agency simply didn’t have the authority to curb emissions of greenhouse gases. States and environmental groups sued, and the case eventually landed in the United States Supreme Court, where Mendelson served as co-counsel.

MENDELSON: At one point actually, some spittle from Justice Bryar landed on my notes in front of me, and I looked around and I realized: ‘Wow, I went to law school to be an environmental attorney and now you’re in the Supreme Court on climate change.’ So I can’t say I expected it but once we started moving forward I saw the path you could go down.

TAJ: The path led to the Court’s controversial 2007 ruling, telling the EPA it can regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Then to the Obama EPA decision to use that authority. It first enacted tougher standards for vehicle emissions, and soon will do the same for big industrial polluters. But Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski wants to put a stop to it all.

MURKOWSKI: I would like to think that we can put the brakes on EPA now as they’re moving forward in implementing regulations under the Clean Air Act. I don’t think they, as a regulatory agency, should be the one that puts in place climate policy.

Senator Lisa Murkowski

TAJ: The Alaskan Senator wants Congress to strip EPA’s new authority using a little-used process called the Congressional Review Act. No filibusters allowed—that means she only needs 51 votes instead of 60 to get it passed. She already has 41, but many analysts say getting it through the Senate will be tough; Getting it through the House tougher still; and getting the president to sign it into law—unlikely. Joe Mendelson now directs global warming policy for the National Wildlife Federation.

MENDELSON: I’m heartened by the fact that I don’t think it’s going to become law. However it is a symbolic vote as to what the Senate thinks about climate change. For the Senate to support the Murkowski amendment would be a real step back in denying climate science. And I think that’s a vote that Senators do not want to be on the wrong side of history on.

TAJ: But that’s not how everyone sees it. Myron Ebell is director of energy and global warming policy at the conservative think-tank, the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

EBELL: The Murkowski resolution is something that people should support—even if they think global warming is a big problem. Now we don’t think global warming is a big problem, but even if you do you should agree that the Clean Air Act is about the worst possible way that you could figure out to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.

TAJ: He says the free market should lead the way, and that EPA action will only raise prices and suppress technological innovations that could lead to emissions reductions. The Obama administration says it’s better to legislate a solution than to mandate one. A law passed by Congress would build more consensus, have broader reach, and be more likely to survive following administrations. But the Senate has yet to act.

Lindsey Graham used to be the key Republican co-sponsor of the Kerry-Lieberman bill to cap greenhouse gas emissions. It puts a price on carbon and takes away EPA’s ability to use the Clean Air Act to reduce some industrial emissions. Senator Graham’s no longer promotes the bill, but he is one of 41 cosponsors of Murkowski’s resolution.

GRAHAM: I’m going to vote to preempt the EPA with the understanding that Congress should eventually and systematically regulate carbon pollution.

TAJ: Graham says the Gulf spill has made it tougher to sell the Kerry-Lieberman bill’s key tradeoff—an expansion of offshore oil drilling. He said smaller versions of an energy-climate bill could be the way forward.

GRAHAM: There’s some things we can do on nuclear power; there are some things we can do on the alternative energy side that would make it easier for our country to start creating technologies before China owns the whole alternative energy economy, but I don’t see 60 votes right now for capping carbon and expanding offshore drilling.

TAJ: One no vote would likely come from Lisa Murkowski.

MURKOWSKI: I don’t think that the EPA preemption language in Kerry-Lieberman is adequate. So to suggest that even if I did like the EPA preemption language in Kerry-Lieberman that I would somehow support the bill ignores the flaws in the rest of the bill.

TAJ: Senator Murkowski’s proposal is scheduled for a vote June tenth; the Kerry-Lieberman climate bill could hit the floor later this summer. In the meantime, the EPA is gearing up to require big power plants, factories and refineries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions starting January of next year. For Living on Earth, I’m Mitra Taj in Washington.



For more of Murkowki's view's on the EPA's authority, click here.

For more from opponents of the resolution, click here.

Click here for more about the EPA's endangerment finding.


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