A Republican senator blasted President Obama's nominee to lead U.S. EPA's air office yesterday for failing to outline a clear path for protecting small businesses from climate regulations under the Clean Air Act.
Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming has placed a "hold" on the nomination of Gina McCarthy to lead EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, saying the agency's proposed finding that greenhouse gases endanger human health and welfare would lead to costly regulations of small sources.
EPA lawyers and environmental groups insist that any new rules would be flexible enough to avoid regulating emissions from small sources like hospitals and commercial buildings. But Barrasso and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce say environmental groups will likely sue EPA, pushing the agency to regulate the smallest sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
"Special interest groups are scheming to sue the EPA to prosecute hospitals, farms, nursing homes, commercial buildings and any other small emitter of greenhouse gases," Barrasso said in a statement. "These regulations are a dangerous loose cannon in the wrong hands."
In a written response to questions posed by Republican members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, McCarthy sought to downplay the possibility of EPA regulations stretching beyond major emitters like power plants and industrial sources.
"While I understand that EPA does not have authority to revise federal laws," she wrote, "it is my understanding that the [Clean Air Act] leaves EPA discretion, if the agency regulates greenhouse gas emissions under the act, to do so in a way that takes account of the size of emission sources."
Still, McCarthy did not rule out the possibility that lawsuits might drive EPA to regulate smaller sources.
"As you know, the [Clean Air Act] requires that citizens give EPA and the relevant state 60 days notice before bringing a citizen suit," she wrote. "If confirmed, I will request that I be informed if any such notice is filed with regard to a small source, and I will follow-up with the potential litigants."
That is not enough to satisfy Barrasso.
"The solution to this problem is not to have government officials go around asking litigants not to sue," he said.
Major environmental groups have indicated they have no plans to push EPA to regulate smaller emitters and would prefer instead to concentrate their efforts on larger sources. But some lawmakers and industry groups have argued that there is no assurance that EPA would be able to legally stave off such challenges should they arise.
Barrasso pointed to a recent Wall Street Journal article, which quoted Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute, saying her organization is prepared to sue EPA to regulate smaller emitters if the agency stops at simply large sources.
"This confirms my worst fears," Barrasso said.
But lawyers for the advocacy group say their position has been misrepresented.
"The Center for Biological Diversity is not going to sue the EPA to regulate small sources of carbon dioxide, nor is anyone else," Siegel said in an e-mail. "Characterizing it that way is an incredibly cynical ploy by Barrasso and [Sen. James] Inhofe to block solutions to the climate crisis and create a distraction from the real issues."
In order to stave off the effects of climate change, EPA may eventually have to regulate sources like big hospitals that emit large amounts of carbon dioxide, said William Snape, senior counsel with the center, but he added that EPA would then work with the polluters to help bring them within clean air limits.
"No one is talking in any regime about shutting down institutions in our society that are helping us," he said.
Senior reporter Darren Samuelsohn contributed.