Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska failed in her ill-timed and controversial campaign to take away the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate greenhouse gases, affirmed by the Supreme Court in 2007. Her closely watched bid to just say "no" to climate science in the glaring absence of Congressional action on greenhouse gas pollution met with defeat, as expected.
On Thursday evening, after six hours of debate, the Senate rejected her "Resolution of Disapproval" in a vote of 53 to 47. The measure needed a simple majority of 51 to pass.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Ca.), who voted no, called it "a turning point" for the U.S. Senate.
"What was before us was unprecedented. [It was] the first time we'd ever been ask to repeal a health finding that was made by scientists and health officials in the Bush administration and the Obama administration," Boxer said after the vote.
"We did the right thing ... this was important. It means we're going to move to alternative energy. We're going to move to the millions of jobs that will come about when we have technologies made in America for America."
President Obama commended the chamber for rejecting a resolution that would ensure business as usual.
"Today, the Senate chose to move America forward, towards that clean energy economy — not backward to the same failed policies that have left our nation increasingly dependent on foreign oil."
For all the hoopla surrounding Thursday's vote, however, the largely symbolic measure had almost no chance of marching through Congress, and its hugely public failure may now open the door for the Senate to pass climate legislation this year.
Murkowski's resolution was politically ill-conceived. The U.S. House had said it would not take up the resolution, and this week, President Obama declared he would veto the measure if it somehow reached his desk. Federal regulators will limit global warming pollution if Congress continues to dilly-dally on comprehensive climate-energy legislation.
Democrats would need 60 votes to pass a climate bill in the Senate. According to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, a non-profit research group, the Murkowski showdown reveals that figure is within reach. Among the 47 senators voting "yes", it said, eight made statements in support of limiting greenhouse gases, including five Republicans.
"In other words, at least 61 Senators, through their votes or statements today, expressed support for policy that would limit GHG emissions," the group said in a post-vote analysis.
In the end, the Murkowski Resolution had six Democratic backers — Sens. Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Evan Bayh (Ind.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.). All represent coal or agricultural states concerned about the economic effects of carbon regulation. No Republican voted against the resolution.
Rockefeller, in declaring his support for the measure, said on the Senate floor that he supports "all alternative fuels" but "EPA regulation is not the answer."
"EPA has little or no authority to address economic needs ... no obligation to protect the hardworking people that I represent ... in the coalfields of West Virginia. Their jobs matter," he said.
Sen. Rockefeller has introduced a separate bill that would impose a two-year moratorium on the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gases from power plants and other stationary sources.
Last December, the EPA officially declared greenhouse gases a danger to public health and welfare, in response to a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the agency's authority to make such a determination under the Clean Air Act. The endangerment finding laid the foundation for regulatory action; indeed, it obligated the EPA to act to reduce global warming pollutants under the law.
The Murkowski resolution was introduced in January under a rarely used procedure that can prohibit rules written by a federal agency from taking effect. The senator had made a similar attempt last year through an EPA budget amendment but it never reached a vote.
Ultimately, the measure hit the Senate floor at a crossroads in the energy debate, as the BP oil spill mushrooms unabated amid a growing clamor for more clean fuels. All the while, climate and energy bills remain stalled in the Senate.
It was a point not lost on Democratic senators.
"This resolution could not be coming at a more meaningful moment in our nation's history," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). "Thousands and thousands of barrels of oil continue to pour into the Gulf, disrupting lives, posing enormous risks to our shoreline, costing our economy billions of dollars. Now is certainly not the time to tie the federal government's hands when it comes to weaning our nation off unclean fuels."
But much of the debate was a replay of the partisan dart-throwing the nation has been hearing on global warming policy for several years.
Democrats said greenhouse gas regulation would build jobs and boost the ailing economy, improve public health and help wean the nation off foreign oil. Republicans said carbon-reduction rules would wipe out jobs, make U.S. companies less competitive and increase consumer electric bills.
Nearly all Republicans expressed concerned that EPA intervention would undercut the power of Congress to address climate change. Sen. John Kerry, a co-author of the American Power Act (APA), the cap-and-trade bill introduced in the Senate in May, balked at the notion that Republicans were eager to act.
"This is going to be the 'Great Hypocrisy Test' resolution," Kerry said. "We're going to see how many of these folks who are here on the floor saying we need to leave it to Congress ... are actually going to show up and vote ... to restrain greenhouse gases."
After the vote, in a joint statement with Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), an APA co-author, Kerry challenged the Republicans to match their words with action.
"Many supporters of the Murkowski resolution argued passionately that climate change is real but that addressing it is a job for Congress not the EPA. We hope they will now engage with us to pass our pro-business, pro-jobs approach so the EPA doesn't have to do the job that the Senate has failed to do," the senators wrote.
Big Oil and Climate Science
BP and other oil majors — the very companies the EPA would be regulating — supported the Murkowski resolution. With public anger growing over the Gulf Coast spill, the Senate's environment supporters took care to point this out during the debate.
"The most enthusiastic supporters of this resolution we are debating today are BP, their fellow oil companies and their lobbyists in Washington," Schumer said.
"Why should we let BP and their lobbyists take the driver's seat? Why should we allow them to tell us how to achieve energy independence, how to keep the American people safe from greenhouse gases ... We're witnessing first hand what happens when industry is allowed to do what's best for industry."
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said there is "no doubt" this resolution is "about Big Oil."
"Have no doubt, this resolution increases our dependence on the Middle East and Venezuela to the tune of an enormous amount — so much that you'd have to drive a car around the equator 10 million times to consume that oil," he said.
In the view of Sen. Merkley and several other Democratic senators, as well as many environmental groups, the resolution was also an attack against climate science.
"[The measure] says we reject the science," Merkley said. "It says we reject the endangerment finding to the public health of our citizens."
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said the EPA's finding that greenhouse gases are a danger to human health is based on an "exhaustive review of scientific research."
"We're being asked to overturn with a political veto the strong scientific evidence that points to a healthier future," he said.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a non-profit organization, called the measure "irresponsible" in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence of the health threats of human-caused warming. Earlier this month, 1,906 scientists signed an open letter to Congress to oppose Murkowski-like attacks on the Clean Air Act.
"It's deeply disturbing that some senators thought they could wave a magic wand and make the entire body of climate science disappear. The EPA determined that global warming emissions endanger public health. Passing a resolution pretending the agency never made that finding can't erase the facts. The EPA is right to start regulating these emissions as soon as possible," UCS said in a statement after the vote.
But supporters of the measure were adamant that the resolution had nothing to do with climate science or the oil spill.
"This is not a debate about the science," Murkowski said. "This is about how we respond to the science. We're not here to decide whether or not greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced. We're here to decide if we're going to allow them to be reduced under the structures of the Clean Air Act."
Furthermore, she said: "In no way, shape or form" is the resolution related to the "disaster in the Gulf." The suggestion that this is "all about Big Oil," Murkowski added, "belies" the fact that 530 organizations "from Maine to Alaska" signed on to support the measure.
For his part, Rockefeller said the oil spill "is a totally separate issue," and that he believes the science on climate change is "correct."
"I care deeply about this Earth and resent anybody who suggests otherwise about either me or the people of my state," Rockefeller said. For the West Virginia senator, it boils down to the issue of EPA overreach.
"I think the elected people and not the unelected EPA have constitutional responsibility," Rockefeller said.
Americans Get Their Say
A new national survey released this week by researchers at Yale and George Mason Universities found that 77 percent of Americans support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant, up six points since January. That includes 64 percent of Republicans.
In addition, the number of respondents that said President Obama and Congress should make developing clean energy sources a top priority increased to 71 percent, up 11 points.
Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, explained the results:
"The stabilization and slight rebound in public opinion is occurring amid signs the economy is starting to recover, along with consumer confidence, and as memories of unusual snowstorms and scientific scandals recede," he said. "The BP oil disaster is also reminding the public of the dark side of dependence on fossil fuels, which may be increasing support for clean energy policies."