McConnell leads fight against Obama's environmental policy

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 31, 2011 

WASHINGTON — In Kentucky, where coal mining has been the lifeblood of many rural communities, miners and the lawmakers who represent them say the Obama administration's push for regulations that cap greenhouse gases and toughen mine permitting requirements feels like an assault.

In response, lawmakers from Kentucky and other mining states have battled the administration's efforts through legislation designed to weaken the Environmental Protection Agency's regulatory authority and by attacking agency director Lisa Jackson.

This week alone, there are three measures up for debate in the Senate that would revise critical parts of the Clean Air Act. The proposals, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, Senate finance committee chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., are vital to helping shore up the economy, say supporters.

"Americans are tired of the White House paying lip service to their struggles while quietly promoting effort after effort, either through legislation or through some back-door regulation, that make it harder, not easier, for businesses to create new jobs," McConnell said on the Senate floor Tuesday.

McConnell's amendment, which is based on legislation by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., advocates an outright block on the EPA's power to issue new regulations on greenhouse gasses.

The amendment, much like the Inhofe bill, would overturn a scientific finding that heat-trapping gases from fossil fuels are changing the climate in ways that will be harmful to human health and the environment.

The finding was made by the EPA during the George W. Bush administration but was made public by the Obama administration.

That finding is in line with the consensus view of the vast majority of the world's climate experts, the National Academy of Science and similar top government science advisory groups in other countries.

McConnell's measure, which is expected to fail, is aimed in part at forcing lawmakers — especially politically vulnerable moderate Democrats — to vote on the issue.

"This is about elections. It's about politics. It's about using this issue as a metaphor to gain points in partisan politics," said Michael Livermore, the executive director of the Institute for Policy Integrity, a non-partisan advocacy organization that focuses on governmental decision making, and an adjunct professor at New York University School of Law.

McConnell's effort comes as state lawmakers and officials — including Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, whose administration sued the EPA over delays in issuing coal mining permits — have criticized what they see as the EPA's overly-aggressive regulatory efforts.

"Get off our backs," Beshear told Washington regulators in a January speech to state lawmakers, who responded with extended applause.

Fellow Kentucky lawmaker Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky, along with Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., have a similar measure in the House.

Meanwhile, the Baucus amendment would exempt smaller businesses and farms from new EPA greenhouse gas regulations — though the agency has said it has no plan to impose any carbon controls on farms and small business. The Rockefeller amendment would put in place a two-year delay on implementing greenhouse gas emission regulations.

The outcome of such efforts may rest with a handful of moderate Senate Democrats, such as Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

The ongoing battle over EPA regulation stems from partisan interpretations of a 2007 Supreme Court ruling, Massachusetts vs. EPA, which held that the agency should regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

Republicans often accuse the Obama administration of interpreting the ruling too broadly, while Democrats counter that it is sound science, not the EPA, guiding policy.

"It's all about denying clear science," said David Doniger, climate policy director with the National Resources Defense Council. "Republicans have a lot of power to change the nation's laws, but they can't change the laws of nature."

National Mining Association president Hal Quinn counters that "EPA's ill-considered regulation, if left unchallenged, will drive up electricity costs ..."

In February, EPA head Lisa Jackson was forced to go on the defensive against Republican members of the House energy and commerce committee during a marathon hearing. GOP lawmakers accused the Obama administration of using strong-arm tactics to push its climate change agenda at the expense of jobs and the economy.

"While EPA has conducted jobs impact studies on some regulations, they have yet to do a comprehensive analysis of all the rules that will be coming down in a train wreck of regulation that will have far-reaching consequences on jobs and economic growth," Whitfield, chairman of the subcommittee on energy and power, said after the hearing.

Jackson fired back that the Whitfield-Upton measure is a case of "politicians overruling scientists on a scientific question"— a practice that could have far ranging negative implications.

McConnell and fellow Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul also have a measure that gives the EPA 60 days to approve or veto mining permit applications under the Clean Air Act. If the agency doesn't act within that time, the permit automatically moves forward.

"The out-of-control EPA is already costing the people of Kentucky jobs and their war on coal could cost us even more," Paul said earlier this month.

However, the Obama administration's regulatory efforts related to coal are mixed. For example, the administration stepped in to delay, if not block, EPA's move for stronger regulation on coal ash.

The agency proposed regulating coal ash nationwide as a hazardous material, with an exemption for its use in wall board and other building materials that encapsulate it so that it can't cause harm. But the White House Office of Management and Budget required the EPA to propose an alternative plan to regulate coal ash as a non-hazardous material and leave enforcement up to the states, as it is now.

The EPA held hearings about both approaches and is now considering more than 450,000 comments. Jackson said it will choose one of the two options next year.

Court orders also have pushed the EPA to enforce some Clean Air Act amendments that Congress passed on a bipartisan basis in 1990. Under one such requirement, the EPA earlier this month proposed the first federal regulation of mercury from its largest source — coal fired power plants.

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