An environmental group came under attack today as Senate Republicans accused U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy of heeding Beltway elites and putting their concerns ahead of needy Americans when her agency wrote rules for curbing power plants' greenhouse gas emissions.
Sens. David Vitter (R-La.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) pointed to a July 6 New York Times story about the Natural Resources Defense Council's role in shaping EPA's proposal for existing power plants. McCarthy has said the story overstated NRDC's role (Greenwire, July 8).
In an Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, ranking member Vitter called EPA's proposal "fundamentally similar" to NRDC's, adding it "drives states to implement renewable portfolio standards to replace fossil fuel energy, whether they like it or not."
Meanwhile, Barrasso portrayed NRDC as a cadre of wealthy lawyers and lobbyists devoted to influencing federal policy. He referred to the Times story to say the three experts who oversaw the NRDC plan -- David Doniger, Dan Lashof and David Hawkins -- are "Washington's best-paid lobbyists."
Calling NRDC a "$120-million-a-year lobbying machine backed by Hollywood elites," Barrasso accused McCarthy and EPA of allowing the group to draft the blueprint for their regulations while simultaneously refusing to hold hearings on the proposal in coal country. EPA is set to hold two-day listening sessions on the rule in four cities next week: Atlanta; Denver; Philadelphia; and Washington, D.C. (see related story).
"This same administrator refuses to actually listen to the people whose lives and jobs will be severely impacted by these regulations drawn up by wealthy lawyers and lobbyists," Barrasso said. He added that he planned to file a Freedom of Information Act request for "all records and documents" related to NRDC's role in setting the standard.
The Times referred to Doniger, Hawkins and Lashof as being "as seasoned and well-connected as Washington's best-paid lobbyists because of their decades of experience and the relationships they formed in the Capital."
The three aren't registered lobbyists, though NRDC spokesman Ed Chen said its staff did seek to influence policy. "If we didn't try to influence the EPA, and the White House, we'd be guilty of malpractice," he said in an email.
The group's budget for fiscal 2013 was $108 million, according to its financial statement.
In an internal email circulated earlier this month, McCarthy blasted the Times article for minimizing the work that EPA staff had done to ready the rule.
Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said today that NRDC had offered its ideas publicly and praised it for suggesting that EPA propose having states take the lead in crafting implementation strategies under the rule.
McCarthy said at today's hearing that the Times article had been given "surprising credibility" by Republicans and industry advocates. She said again that it gave short shrift to the work done by the agency.
"I think it's a discredit to them to suggest that this was somehow designed miraculously by one group many months ago, and we just had it in our pocket ready to go," she said. She added that she had met more with utility groups than with NRDC.
Other Republicans focused on the economic costs the nation would pay for the climate proposal that seeks to reduce utilities' greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent compared with 2005 by 2030.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said the draft would compel his state's entire coal-fired power fleet to shut down, punishing the state for having a "diversified portfolio" that includes natural-gas-fired power plants.
The proposal assumes a state can run its natural-gas-fired power plants at 70 percent capacity and thereby displace an equivalent amount of coal-fired generation. But Wicker called the rule "a regulatory noose" that would be "disastrous for our economy ... and have minuscule impact on our environment."
Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) said there appeared to be internal inconsistencies within the rule. The rule relies on four "building blocks" to calculate a state's emissions-reduction obligations -- improved heat rates at coal-fired power plants, shifting load from coal to combined-cycle natural gas units, zero-carbon electricity and demand-side efficiency.
"Building blocks one and two are in direct opposition to each other," Fischer said. If a utility invested in heat-rate improvements at a coal-fired power plant it owned, she said, it would be inclined to run it rather than ramping up use of a natural gas combined-cycle power plant instead.
None of the building blocks is required under the rule -- a point McCarthy drove home in her response to Fischer -- but industry analysts say states would have few alternatives but to implement the four proposed building blocks or to overperform on one or more of them in order to avoid implementing the others. A choice not to implement one of the four steps would not reduce a state's emissions reduction obligations.
McCarthy also fielded GOP questions about the way EPA vetted the proposal's costs and about its assumed benefits, which she said took into account both domestic and global advantages of the rule.
No Republican threatened to offer legislation to strip the agency of its authority to regulate. They instead warned that the proposal would likely be struck down in court for overstepping EPA's statutory authority under the Clean Air Act.
In her statement to the committee, McCarthy sought to counter Republican concerns about the rule's economic impact. Climate change, she said, would be the real economic disaster. Combating it would be a boon to the U.S. economy, she said.
"The president's proposal will create thousands of jobs, while ensuring that big polluters reduce their dangerous contributions to climate change," she said.
"Climate change is happening now," she added, "and we cannot afford to wait."