WASHINGTON — Now that the House of Representatives has voted to repeal the health care law, Republicans say they're likely to move soon to another target — a rewrite of the Clean Air Act so that it can't be used to fight climate change.
The Environmental Protection Agency in December said it would draw up performance standards that would help cut heat-trapping gases produced by refineries and coal-fired power plants. The EPA hasn't proposed the specifics yet, and existing plants wouldn't be affected until the later years of the decade, but opponents of regulation aren't waiting.
The new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee said he'd have hearings about the impact of the EPA's emission reduction plan on jobs.
"Standing up for American workers and addressing EPA's rampant regulations is a top priority, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., said Thursday. "We will be active and aggressive using every tool in the toolbox to protect American jobs and our economy by rolling back the job-destroying (greenhouse gas) regulations."
Like the health-care repeal, though, it's largely a symbolic effort since the Senate retains its Democratic majority and President Barack Obama wields his veto pen.
The American climate debate has been focused on economic interests — whether actions to reduce fossil fuel use would create or eliminate jobs. Meanwhile, an increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, driven mainly by fossil fuel use, poses a rising risk of climate disruptions around the globe.
"There is an enormous failure, in my view, to see the ethical and moral dimensions of this issue," said Donald Brown, a professor of environmental ethics at Penn State University. "It's very difficult for people in the United States to see that self-interest is an important consideration, but we also have responsibilities to people in Africa."
Brown argues that farmers facing worsening drought in African countries are the first victims of a changing climate, and that every year of delay in slashing U.S. emissions makes helping them harder.
Politicians give two reasons not to act to restrict emissions — it would cost too much, and there are uncertainties about what the exact effect of climate change will be.
Brown said that skirts a fundamental issue.
"The economic argument has been used to scare people, without reflecting on rights and responsibilities," he said. And uncertainty "requires, ethically, that if the harm is big enough, that the burden of proof should shift to the person who wants to do the dangerous behavior, particularly in cases where if you wait until all the uncertainty is resolved, it's too late."
Politically, it's a tough sell. There aren't the votes in Congress for a broad cap-and-trade approach to cut emissions. Also, there's not much chance that Congress this year will vote on other measures to bring emissions down.
"Here's the thing," said Dale Jamieson, a professor of environmental studies and philosophy at New York University. "So climate change is in some ways an incredibly complex issue. It's slow motion. It has millions of different players. The effects are disaggregated."
But it's also simple, he said. "It really comes down to this — the U.S. and countries like us — we're dumping on others and harming them because of acting in our own interest."
In fact, he argued, it's in our interest to clean up emissions, "but we're afraid to let go of this business-as-usual model."
Two pieces have been missing in the national debate, he said.
One is that the U.S. and countries like it use too much of a global resource — the planet's ability to absorb carbon. The other is that the U.S. promised in 1992 that it would stabilize concentrations of greenhouse gases to prevent climate dangers, but emissions have been going up.
Enter the Obama administration's EPA.
On Dec. 23, the EPA announced its intention to devise performance standards for power plants and refineries. The standards would only apply to new or upgraded facilities. Later in the decade, states would apply them to existing plants — and that's the industries' main worry.
Performance standards generally mean efficiency requirements that would help limit the use of fossil fuels and emissions. It's not a limit on emissions, because if production increases, emissions go up as well.
A nonpartisan research group, Resources for the Future, estimated last year that the EPA could set modest efficiency standards for coal-fired power plants that would reduce emissions by about 3 percent. The EPA, however, hasn't ventured an estimate of what the performance standards could achieve.
The EPA this month also started requiring greenhouse gas permits when large industrial facilities are constructed. Companies must show state regulators that they'll use the best-available emissions control technology.
Environmentalists have said the EPA's plans on greenhouse gas emissions — also including new fuel efficiency standards for 2012-2016 cars and light trucks — are important first steps, even though they fall short of the roughly 80 percent cuts that will be needed in future decades.
The prospect of what could be expensive reductions has opponents energized.
Ever since the Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the EPA had the authority to regulate greenhouses gases if they pose a danger to the public, some have criticized the prospect of government-set limits on carbon pollution from fossil fuels.
The House legislation, the Free Industry Act, introduced by Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., has 96 co-sponsors — all Republicans except Rep. Dan Boren, a Democrat from Oklahoma.
The bill would change the law so that greenhouse gases couldn't be considered air pollution and it would tell the EPA that nothing in the law empowers the agency to regulate the pollutants that cause climate change.
While the Republican measure faces the hurdles of Senate passage and a possible presidential veto, other approaches could handicap or delay the EPA.
In a recent commentary, Upton and Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, an anti-regulatory group that used a tour of a hot-air balloon to popularize its rejection of climate science, described the EPA's action as "an unconstitutional power grab that will kill millions of jobs."
Moreover, if there aren't enough votes in Congress to overturn EPA's proposed greenhouse gas regulations, they'd aim to delay the EPA action until court challenges about it are settled.
Upton and Phillips, who said they're "not convinced" that any greenhouse gas regulation is needed, argued, "Cuts in carbon emission would mean significantly higher electricity prices."
And that, they suggested, won't sit well with the public.
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