The Obama administration's environmental agenda is starting to come under fire from some of the Democratic Party's most reliable supporters: labor unions.
Several unions with strong influence in swing states are pushing for U.S. EPA to soften new regulations aimed at pollution associated with coal-fired power plants. They say roughly half a dozen rules that are expected to come out within the next two years could jeopardize thousands of jobs.
"If the EPA issues regulations that cost jobs in Pennsylvania and Ohio, the Republicans will blast the president with it over and over," said Stewart Acuff, chief of staff to the president of the Utility Workers Union of America. "Not just the president. Every Democratic [lawmaker] from those states."
The Obama EPA has long been a target of many U.S. companies, from coal and oil firms to manufacturers. They say a new regulation targeting mercury and other toxic pollutants, slated to be proposed this week, could mean higher electric bills, billions of dollars in new costs and the shuttering of plants that employ thousands of workers.
Now, with labor unions joining the chorus, pressure on the agency is intensifying and some Democrats are urging EPA to slow down its push on climate change.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and her top aide on air quality, Gina McCarthy, have been talking with representatives of several unions that together have given tens of millions of dollars to Democratic candidates over the years. They include: the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, the Utility Workers Union and the United Mine Workers.
A study by the miners' union said the soon-to-be proposed mercury rule, along with others targeting coal-related pollution, could put as many as 250,000 jobs at risk. The lion's share of those would come from the utility, mining and railroad sectors, hitting the Rust Belt states hardest. They have many old coal-fired power plants -- and also electoral votes.
But EPA says it is too early to calculate possible job losses.
"These are the same doomsday scenarios we hear whenever we take steps to protect Americans from dangerous air pollution," said EPA spokesman Brendan Gilfillan. An EPA study released this month said regulations the agency put in place between 1990 and 2005 to reduce soot and smog will yield $2 trillion in benefits in 2020, mainly from fewer premature deaths.
Now, a nascent alliance between unions and companies wary of EPA has begun to emerge. Last month, representatives from the boilermakers and the electrical workers unions met in Washington with Mike Morris, CEO of American Electric Power Co. Inc., which is one of the nation's top coal burners and stands to be among the companies hit hardest by tougher EPA rules.
And in January, Morris met with the president of the electrical workers union and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Political analysts say these changing dynamics could come into play in the 2012 election, especially in Rust Belt states.
"Environmental issues aren't going to be the No. 1 issue on the table, but they're going to be a factor with enough voters that in a tight election, it can tip the scales," said Greg Haas, a Democratic political strategist based in Columbus, Ohio (Stephen Power, Wall Street Journal, March 14). -- AS