WASHINGTON—Sen. Jay Rockefeller's single-handed effort to stall the EPA's newest initiative to curb heat-trapping gases could fade away if a vote isn't shoehorned into an already jam-packed and topsy-turvy lame duck session that began Monday.
Months ago, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had promised the Democrat from coal-rich West Virginia that his proposal would gain floor time. But this week the Nevadan appeared to backpedal on that pledge.
"We are at a critical time here," Reid told The Hill newspaper Tuesday, the same day he and Rockefeller were scheduled for a strategy meeting. "It is real hard just to say 'yeah, we can do this,' because we have limited time to go through all the procedural motions. But if there is a way we can do it, I will be happy to work with him."
Understandably, the measure Rockefeller introduced in March has environmental organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council on edge.
But Franz Matzner, the council's climate legislative director, was dead-on with his interpretation about what evidently unfolded during the Reid-Rockefeller talk. Though neither senator's office would comment on the meeting, it appears nothing substantive about a vote was decided.
"It is unclear what will happen over the next few weeks," Matzner told SolveClimate News in an interview, referring to the unpredictability of post-election sessions. "This discussion is ongoing. We'll see what shakes out."
At this point, he emphasized, it is difficult to predict what will become of Rockefeller's request or any other legislation.
"What we do in all of these circumstances it to make sure the public and decision-makers are aware of the facts," Matzner said. "And the fact is that the Clean Air Act works. It was designed to address public health issues but the job is not done yet. The Environmental Protection Agency is fulfilling its responsibility."
Aren't Rockefeller's Odds Better Next Session?
In a nutshell, Rockefeller wants the EPA to delay the regulation of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases from electric utilities, oil refiners and other large-scale stationary emitters for two years.
The catch is that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has already outlined and laid the groundwork for her agency to deploy the Clean Air Act and begin regulating those emissions Jan. 2. A Supreme Court ruling in April 2007 gave EPA the authority to treat greenhouse gases as a pollutant.
In interviews, Rockefeller has been adamant about his measure—whether it comes up as a stand-alone bill or an amendment to another bill—coming up in this session before the 111th Congress adjourns. He said he fears that Republicans would gum up and gut the entire tenor of his proposal if it were introduced next year.
"I want what's in my bill," said Rockefeller, who chairs the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. "I think it's fair and proper."
"I am concerned that the EPA has not provided these employers enough time to process and understand rules that they will be required to comply with in just two months time," he wrote in a statement on his Web site defending his bill. "In fact, it is still unclear what exactly will be required to receive a greenhouse gas air permit next year, as each state will be making case-by-case decisions. Such an unstable regulatory environment prevents companies from making long-range investment decisions that will put West Virginians back to work.
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., who chairs the Natural Resources Committee, has introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives. However, even if the Senate voted to pass the proposal before year's end, a still Democrat-dominated House of Representatives is unlikely to go anywhere near such a vote. And, President Obama still has veto power if the legislation miraculously advanced through both chambers.
What Rockefeller has officially called the Stationary Source Regulations Delay Act has garnered support from six Democratic co-sponsors: Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Jim Webb of Virginia.
It is expected that newly elected Sen. Joe Manchin, from the coal state of West Virginia, also would join those co-sponsors. The conservative Democrat and former governor was sworn in Monday to fill the vacancy left when Sen. Robert Byrd died in late June at age 92.
Murkowski Also Urges a Rockefeller Vote
Not surprisingly, Rockefeller's bid has earned kudos from Sen. Lisa Murkowski. The Alaska Republican not only expects to retain her Senate seat by winning a long-shot write-in bid—she could be declared the victor in the three-way Alaska Senate contest as early as today—but she also expects to remain as the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Earlier this year, she drew up a disapproval resolution designed to block EPA's science-based endangerment finding for greenhouse gases. Back in June, however, the Senate rejected a procedural motion on a 47-53 vote, thus putting the kibosh on Murkowski's measure.
In addition to favor from all 41 Republican senators, however, her resolution also drew support from six Democrats. In addition to Rockefeller and Nelson, Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas also were on board.
Generally, neither Rockefeller nor Murkowski is opposed to the Obama administration's plans to regulate tailpipe emissions and fuel economy standards. Their concern centers around the stationary sources laid out in EPA's mid-May tailoring rule.
Vehicles or Power Plants: It's Still Carbon Dioxide
What rankles NRDC's Matzner and other environmental advocates is that legislators such as Rockefeller and Murkowski insist on differentiating greenhouse gases by the source that emits them.
"It's a totally faulty argument," Matzner emphasized about the contradiction. "The life-threatening pollution that comes out of tailpipes is the same as that coming out of smokestacks."
Although early on, industry and government officials acted like "Chicken Little" when talk turned to scrubbing pollutants from tailpipes, he said, those efforts eventually were hailed as sensible.
Now, he said, the EPA is following an equally reasonable path forward with power plants and other big emitters.
"We need to lift the veil on (Rockefeller's) argument," Matzner concluded, adding that the senator is clearly trying to protect the fossil fuels industry. "The EPA has a 40-year track record of delivering.
"What they're offering on stationary sources is a cost-efficient path forward to clean up the air we breathe. Nobody should be against that."
(Photo: Keith Evans)