Three days into the new Congress, rank-and-file Republicans in the House are quickly making it clear that one of their main priorities will be blocking new air regulations from U.S. EPA -- and not just the ones that are aimed at climate change.
On the climate side, with top-ranking Republicans promising to pass legislation that would block agency actions they see as harmful to the economy, there are already plenty of options on the table. Reps. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Ted Poe of Texas opened up the new session by introducing bills that take different approaches to stopping EPA's new rules for greenhouse gas emissions.
And yesterday, Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) put forward a resolution to block the agency's new regulations for toxic air pollution from cement kilns, prompting a swift backlash from environmentalists and Democrats, who painted the Republicans as putting business interests ahead of human lives.
The Republicans see stopping EPA as a top priority, and after a few years in the minority, they now see the possibility of passing legislation that would do something about it. Capito, whose bill is seen as the most likely to garner votes from moderate Democrats as well as Republicans, said she introduced it as her first legislation of the new Congress because there is no issue "more timely or more relevant" than stopping EPA's regulations.
Similar to legislation put forward in the Senate last session by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), her bill would impose a two-year delay on regulations for the largest industrial plants, but not on fuel-economy rules for cars and trucks, which are supported by the auto industry.
"Although I do not believe the EPA should be granted this authority whatsoever, and I favor permanent suspension, I am confident that my bill has enough support to seriously hinder the EPA's power," Capito said yesterday.
She and her colleagues are all vying to have their preferred approach taken up by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who is poised to lead the Republican campaign against EPA's air regulations. But while some of the new bills got the backing of powerful House Republicans -- the Blackburn bill, for instance, was co-sponsored by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the new chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee -- none of them had the endorsement of Upton or Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), who will chair the Energy and Commerce subcommittee overseeing clean air issues.
Upton recently said he will tackle EPA with "every tool in the toolbox," including oversight hearings and the appropriations process. But he won't be ready to craft a legislative strategy until after Jan. 19, when the panel's subcommittees are organized, he said on Wednesday.
"We're not going to put the cart before the horse," Upton told reporters. "We're going to do this in a thoughtful, constructive way. We're going to build the case and decide what the options are."
Andrew Wheeler, a former Republican staff director for the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, said GOP leaders will need a strict regimen of oversight hearings to build their case for legislation. He said that approach will also help grow a coalition that could override a presidential veto -- or at least put pressure on the administration to compromise.
"Up until now, EPA and the environmentalists have pretty much had the bully pulpit in terms of explaining why they think these regulations are good and necessary," said Wheeler, who now works on energy issues at B&D Consulting. "Oversight hearings that dive into the economics and the impacts of the regulations are needed to explain the negative side to the public and the rank-and-file members of Congress. They need to better understand the regulations before they start trying to pass legislation."
The Blackburn bill would specify that greenhouse gases aren't covered by the Clean Air Act at all, effectively reversing a Supreme Court decision that said they could fit into the statute's definition of "pollutant." And the Poe bill, which was introduced once before during the waning days of the last Congress, would make a political statement by barring EPA from creating a cap-and-trade regime like the one that was imagined by the climate and energy bill that passed the House in 2009 but did not get voted on in the Senate.
Upton hasn't committed to any specific strategy, save for a suggestion last weekend that the Congressional Review Act could be used to rescind new climate regulations. Senate EPW Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) called him out by name yesterday, saying she would "use every tool available" in the upper chamber of Congress to stop his efforts.
No matter which option gets chosen by Republican leadership, it will need to get through the Democratic-controlled Senate. Efforts to roll back regulations were criticized yesterday by leading environmentalists such as Boxer and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
"If they want to repeal EPA [regulations] and stuff like that, I think we ought to go after them," Harkin said in an interview. "I say, give them rope" (E&E Daily, Jan. 7).
Challenge to cement rules
While most of the action has surrounded EPA's first-ever climate rules, which took effect last week, observers are also expecting a slew of efforts to stop regulations on conventional pollution.
Carter's legislation, a one-sentence bill that would cancel new limits on air pollution from cement plants, was the first example.
The regulations, which were released in August, would require cement kilns to reduce their emissions of mercury, soot and other pollutants by more than 90 percent. They did not include greenhouse gases -- a decision that has prompted a lawsuit from environmentalists.
The rules are being challenged by the cement industry, which claims that some plants won't be able to meet the stringent limits. About 20 of the nation's 115 cement plants could be forced to shut down by the new rules, the Portland Cement Association estimates.
Carter's district isn't home to any cement kilns, but the facilities are an anchor of the Texas economy. There are five cement plants along the Interstate 35 corridor that runs between Austin and San Antonio, southwest of his home in Round Rock, Texas.
Environmentalists attacked Carter's bill yesterday, saying that while there is intense debate among lawmakers over greenhouse gases, there's little disagreement about the danger posed by cement kilns. Those types of questions were resolved during the early years of the Clean Air Act, during the 1970s and 1980s, said Stephanie Maddin, associate legislative counsel at Earthjustice.
EPA estimates that the cement kiln standards would provide between $6.7 billion and $18 billion in annual benefits at a cost of between $926 million and $950 million to industry. The failure of climate and energy legislation in Congress last session shouldn't embolden those in Congress who don't like any public health regulations, Maddin said.
"They're trying to portray asthma-attack-inducing irritants and carcinogens as some mystical things that we're unsure of, and it's just untrue," she said. "We're very sure that mercury causes children to be less smart. We're very sure that lead does the same. There's a danger to them misreading any sort of public sentiment, though the inclination that the public does not want global warming gases to be addressed is also a misread."
Reporter Jean Chemnick contributed.