WASHINGTON— Senators Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and Mike Johanns of Nebraska have no quibble with the enormous environmental and health benefits of the federal Clean Air Act.
It's what they consider to be exorbitant costs associated with executing the affiliated regulations that so alarm the Republican duo.
Those financial fears have prompted them to introduce legislation that calls for establishing a high-powered Department of Commerce-led committee to execute exacting arithmetic to calculate the total price tag of far-reaching rules the Environmental Protection Agency is now preparing.
Both senators are members of the Environment and Public Works Committee.
The EPA's mission, of course, is to protect the environment and the public's health. However, Johanns and Inhofe are concerned that EPA's analysis of each rule it issues does not examine the overall economic impact on jobs or specifics, such as effects on retail electricity rates, gasoline prices, power plant closings, state and local governments, small businesses, the domestic refining and petrochemical sector, energy-intensive manufacturers and reliability of electricity delivery.
What's called the "Comprehensive Assessment of Regulations on the Economy Act" — CARE, for short — would require an analysis of each of these sectors. At the very least, the committee would include the EPA administrator, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the chief counsel for advocacy at the Small Business Administration, as well as the secretaries of the Agriculture, Defense, Energy and Labor departments.
"This is a very simple effort to get the federal government to weigh the impact of EPA's regulatory regime on job creation and the overall economy," Johanns, the former Agriculture Department secretary, said when the bill was unveiled Wednesday.
"It would infuse common sense into an agency that seems to be in dire need of it. Our country's ag producers, families and job creators deserve to know the cost of the rules being aimed directly at them."
Inhofe Praises Bill at Hearing
Inhofe, the ranking member of the environment panel, touted his bill last Thursday during a joint hearing of the Clean Air and Nuclear Safety, and Green Jobs and the New Economy subcommittees.
He told Mayor Richard Homrighausen that the CARE measure means "help is on the way" because it would require a panel to look at "impacts on jobs, agriculture, manufacturing, coal, electricity and gasoline prices — all the things that you and mayors like you care about." The mayor of Dover, Ohio, was one of five witnesses offering testimony during the hearing.
"I think we all embrace the significant air quality improvements achieved by businesses and other regulated sources under the Clean Air Act since 1970," Inhofe said in his opening remarks. "I think we also agree that we want clean air progress to continue. Now, here's where we disagree: on the extent, on the pace and on the tools we use to achieve future success in reducing real pollution."
Whether the Clean Air Act creates jobs and boosts the economy is a tension-filled bone of contention between Democrats and Republicans. Both sides seem to be armed with an equal number of studies that can prove the specific negative or positive points they point to during debates.
EPA released a peer-reviewed report this month revealing that Clean Air Act regulations added to the books between 1990 and 2005 to reduce soot and smog pollutants will yield $2 trillion in benefits by 2020, mostly by preventing premature deaths.
Johanns told hearing participants how frustrating it is not to be able to find information from what he considers to be a neutral source. Without access to a rigorous analysis, he said, the discussion "might be interesting to watch on television, but it's not a helpful debate."
""If we choose wrong here," he continued, "the implications are very, very serious."
Timing on Bill Is Key
The two Midwesterners intentionally introduced their CARE Act on the same day that environmental advocates and clean technology organizations hailed EPA for introducing the first national standard for emissions of mercury, arsenic and other pollutants from coal-burning power plants. In Clean Air Act-speak, it's known as Maximum Achievable Control Technology or the "proposed utility MACT."
"Today's announcement is 20 years in the making, and is a significant milestone in the Clean Air Act's already unprecedented record of ensuring our children are protected from the damaging effects of toxic air pollution," Jackson said Wednesday. "With the help of existing technologies, we will be able to take reasonable steps that will provide dramatic protections to our children and loved ones, preventing premature deaths, heart attacks, and asthma attacks."
EPA authorities estimate that requiring power plants to install scrubbers to slice emissions of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases will support 31,000 short-term construction jobs and 9,000 long-term utility jobs.
Upon introducing his CARE Act, Inhofe noted that such a rule could put employees out of work by shutting down up to one-fifth of the nation's coal-fired capacity.
"When you add in all of the rules and regulations from EPA's cap-and-trade agenda, the outlook for jobs and economic growth looks dire," he said. "This bill is about transparency. The public needs to know the full cost of these rules and the impacts when they fill up at the pump and flip the light switch. It will also help guide and inform Congress as it decides how best to deal with the unprecedented barrage of rules coming out of EPA."
When Jackson appeared as a witness before the environment committee a few weeks ago, both Johanns and Inhofe roundly criticized her agency for the breakneck pace at which it is proposing rules.
Democrats and green groups, however, claim the EPA is playing catch-up on a long series of rules that were stalled during the President George W. Bush administration. Plus, Jackson was under a court order to issue the mercury rule by mid-March.
Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, heralded the mercury and arsenic standards as ones that will save lives, prevent illnesses like asthma and bronchitis, avoid hospitalizations and missed days at work, and create jobs in pollution-control technology.
"Today is a great day for the health of our children," Karpinski wrote in an e-mail. "We commend the Obama Administration for releasing the first-ever national standards for mercury and other toxic air pollution for power plants, and we urge that the final standards be as strong as possible."
What Else CARE Act Covers
In addition to Maximum Achievable Control Technology standards for power plants, the Inhofe/Johanns legislation would cover several other air issues that EPA authorities are charged with regulating.
These include the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for particulate matter and ozone; New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) for greenhouse gases covering utilities and refineries; Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) preconstruction review permits for greenhouse gases; and regional haze.
On the employment front, the committee will be responsible for studying how certain EPA rules would affect employment in each segment of the economy and each region of the nation, including coal-production areas. In tandem, that would include production levels and labor demands in the manufacturing and commercial sectors of the economy.
Debate Won't End Soon
For those keeping score, Inhofe is the main Senate sponsor of a bill that would permanently bar the EPA from curbing heat-trapping gases. As is likely the case with the CARE Act, it is doubtful the "Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011" would ever pass the Democratic-controlled Senate.
However, a companion version of the latter bill is chugging through the House hierarchy. Members of the Republican-dominated House and Energy Committee scored a minor victory last Tuesday when they snagged several Democrats and advanced that bill.
Rep. Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, chairs that committee.
Sen. John Barrasso has written a more draconian piece of legislation that would block the EPA and any other part of the federal government from using any existing environmental statute — such as the Clean Water Act or the Endangered Species Act — to control carbon. Though his "Defending America's Affordable Energy and Jobs Act" remains in legislative limbo, the Wyoming Republican has continued to repeatedly lash out at EPA's efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
His latest strike came during the joint hearing of the two Senate subcommittees last Thursday when he dismissed claims that "massive government regulations" create jobs.
"The theory goes like this," Barrasso said. "By crushing red, white and blue jobs through the EPA regulatory meat grinder, that that will actually in some way churn out green jobs."
Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who chairs the green jobs subcommittee, said the mammoth struggle he's now witnessing reminds him of what unfolded in 1990 when the Clean Air Act was updated.
Follow-up studies found, he emphasized, that polluters ended up paying about one-fifth of the anticipated cost to achieve improvements in half the time that was initially predicted.
"This is what the big polluters don't want the American public to know," Sanders said. "They have claimed for decades that the Clean Air Act kills jobs and destroys the economy, but the truth is that pollution is what kills people and kills jobs."