The Senate headed toward a much-watched vote Thursday on whether the Obama administration should be allowed to go ahead with regulations curtailing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other major polluters.
The vote serves as a test of where lawmakers stand on climate change issues as the Senate struggles to come up with legislation to shape future energy policy.
The measure, sponsored by GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski from oil-rich Alaska, would stop the Environmental Protection Agency from carrying out rules to regulate carbon and other greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.
President Barack Obama and Republican-led opponents of the EPA rules agree that passing clean energy legislation would be preferable to having a federal agency impose rules. But they differ sharply on whether the administration should move ahead with putting new rules into effect while Congress tries to come up with new law.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called it a “blatant power grab by the administration and the EPA.” With an energy bill unlikely to pass this year, “the administration has shifted course and is now trying to get done through the back door what they haven’t been able to get done through the front door.”
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called the Murkowski measure, “a great big gift to big oil” that would “increase pollution, increase our dependence on foreign oil and stall our efforts to create jobs” in the clean energy sector.
The White House on Tuesday said President Barack Obama would be advised to veto the bill if it ever reaches his desk. The bill, officials said in a statement, “would undermine the administration’s efforts to reduce the negative impacts of pollution and the risks associated with environmental catastrophes, like the ongoing BP oil spill.”
With that veto threat, the drive to negate the EPA rules is unlikely to become law. That did not deter debate on the most important climate change vote to come before the Senate this year.
Murkowski said she was “flabbergasted” by the effort to link her bill to the Gulf disaster, saying her intent was to stop bureaucratic usurping of congressional authority.
“You either support the Congress setting the policy on climate change or you support the EPA in their capacity as a regulatory agency setting policy,” she said.
Also at issue is how the legislation would affect the Obama administration’s tough new emission standards for the auto industry. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said Tuesday that it would “gut EPA’s authority in the clean cars program,” increasing oil consumption by 455 million barrels over the lifetime of the newly regulated vehicles.
Murkowski challenged that, saying the Transportation Department has for three decades had the ability to set emission standards, and the EPA has a limited role in fuel economy standards.
The senator also argued that the EPA rules would impose too heavy a burden on small businesses and farmers, resulting in job losses. Jackson countered that small sources of pollution will be exempted from the rules, set to go into effect in January, for six years.
“I know that the local Starbucks and the backyard grill are no places to look for meaningful CO2 reductions,” she said.
Despite White House prodding and the refocusing on the energy issue with the BP oil spill, it is unclear whether the Senate has the capability to come up with a clean energy bill this year that can muster the 60 votes needed for passage.
In that light, said Sarah Saylor, senior legislative representative of the environmental group Earthjustice, Thursday’s vote is both a distraction from the real task of coming up with a new energy policy and a test showing which senators are on the side of the fossil fuel industry.
Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller from the coal state of West Virginia, said Tuesday he was siding with Murkowski because “I believe we must send a strong message that the fate of West Virginia’s economy, our manufacturing industries and our workers should not be solely in the hands of EPA.”
The EPA actions grew out of a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases could be regulated under the Clean Air Act if it were shown that such gases endanger health.
Determining that global warming did pose a long-term danger to health, the EPA has issued standards requiring large polluters to reduce the amounts of greenhouse gases they release into the air.
The bill is S.J. Res. 26