U.S. EPA moves toward regulating greenhouse gases is drawing fire from conservatives who are hoping to slow the agency's efforts using many of the same political strategies that they used to stall climate legislation on Capitol Hill.
The agency has in recent weeks become a favorite target for conservative political candidates and commentators and tea party movement-linked blogs and rallies.
"Most believe that cap and trade is dead in the U.S. Senate, and when they hear that the EPA might do it on its own, they have a very strong reaction to it," said Phil Kerpen, policy director for a tea party organizer, Americans for Prosperity. "That taps into a lot of sentiment that a lot of grass roots has; I think it's already becoming a major issue with the grass roots, and it will become a bigger issue as the year goes along."
To be sure, EPA is no stranger to controversy, but it is rare to find an agency maneuvering to attract so much attention beyond regulated industry and the usual political trench battles in Washington. But activism on the right and a corresponding push from the left -- environmental groups have launched their own media campaigns to promote federal regulatory action on climate change -- show that EPA controversies have leapt over the Beltway.
Kerpen's Americans for Prosperity has been circulating a petition urging individuals to write members of Congress to express support for legislative measures aimed at blocking EPA action on greenhouse gases. The petition describes EPA as "an out-of-control bureaucracy attempting an unprecedented power-grab, seeking to regulate every aspect of our lives and take control of the U.S. economy."
"I think a lot of people are seeing that this is where the cap-and-trade fight is this year, and it seems like the bigger bills are stalled, and I don't think we'll see any legislative activity as we get closer to the election cycle," said Wayne Brough, vice president for research at FreedomWorks, which has an ongoing campaign against EPA.
The anti-EPA message is also being carried by prominent conservative politicians and commentators.
"In an attempt by the Environmental Protection Agency to establish a national energy tax by circumventing the legislative process, the EPA (with the backing of the Obama Administration) is pushing emission regulations which will destroy jobs and further impact our already struggling economy," Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a prominent conservative voice, wrote in a blog post this week on townhall.com.
Similar comments have appeared on other popular conservative Web sites. And officials linked to the tea party movement said the issue is being raised at town hall events as more individuals learn about potential EPA regulatory action. A post on the Web site of the Tea Party Patriots, for example, calls for disbanding EPA and describes the agency as a "toxic political ideology funded by taxpayer dollars."
In Texas' Republican gubernatorial primary, Debra Medina -- a little-known figure supported by the Texas Tea Party -- gained traction with a message that EPA should be abolished or, at minimum, ignored.
"We begin to do that by telling the EPA, 'You have no authority here,'" Medina said at a rally late last month. "Get out of Texas energy. Get out of Texas agriculture. Get out of Texas manufacturing."
Medina finished third in the Republican primary this week, with 18 percent of the vote, but that showing in a field that featured the longest-sitting governor in state history and a sitting U.S. senator surprised political pundits. During the campaign, both Gov. Rick Perry (R), the ultimate winner of the primary, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who finished a distant second, also denounced EPA.
In Kentucky, U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul (R), the son of Texas Rep. Ron Paul (R), has repeatedly criticized EPA's authority on climate change and coal mining. "Their agenda is not pollution, it's capitalism," Rand Paul said in a recent debate. "These people do not like our way of life." Of proponents of action on climate change, he said, "We need to oppose them and rein in the EPA."
Paul's views are shared by the other GOP candidates in the Senate race. They have even crossed party lines, with Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, the front-runner for the Senate nomination on the Democratic side, promising he would "fight any attempts by the EPA to overreach its authority."
Activists promoting political action against EPA admit that many rank-and-file voters and tea party participants may not fully understand the agency's regulatory efforts on the climate front. But they argue the EPA initiative hits all hot-button ideas fueling the conservative movement.
EPA, those activists say, represents the notion that the Obama administration is trying to implement a "big government" program that will burden taxpayers with no real purpose other than to expand the federal power.
"We've got a political system that's designed for the legislative branch to be accountable to the public," said Kerpen of Americans for Prosperity. "I think most people don't understand all of the details ... but I think that just the overall complexity of it is enough for most people to know that this not an appropriate vehicle to use."
Will pressure matter?
Opponents of EPA climate regulation argue that a far-reaching political movement can delay or scuttle action, much as they believe campaigns managed to delay cap-and-trade legislation and the health care bill.
"The pressure is huge. It's not even the tea parties, it's the town hall meetings," said Marc Morano, executive editor of the Web site Climate Depot and a former staffer for Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Congress' most outspoken skeptic on climate issues. "The public opinion is powerful. That's why Harry Reid has been dragging his feet, why Obama has been dragging his feet.
"You have talk radio, Internet, blogs on a daily basis just shelling what was left of this consensus on global warming. People no longer buy it and congressmen know it."
But while conservatives are riled up about EPA's regulatory moves, the issue does not appear to have become a political liability for moderate Democrats, the de facto deciding voices on many major legislative debates.
Still, advocates say they anticipate Democrats will be under pressure as Election Day nears and it becomes clear to voters that EPA -- not legislative action -- represents the best chance of putting greenhouse regulations into law.
"They've already beaten cap and trade in Congress," Morano said. "All that's left is the EPA, and they're going after it with gusto."
Environmentalists and their allies see it differently. They say tea parties and other far-right entities show opposition to climate regulation comes far from the political center.
"It shows the fringy nature of the complaint, and that may actually serve to limit its reach rather than extend its reach," said David Doniger, policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate Center.
But one Capitol Hill Republican argued this week that opposition to EPA regulation would gain traction with moderate Democrats who have been battered by their party's support for cap-and-trade legislation, noting that Democrats like Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia have begun pushing measures to block or delay EPA action.
"If I were a Democrat trying not to displease the administration, trying to win midterm elections and trying to do what's right for my state, I'd say that Rockefeller does a pretty good job of threading the needle," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), referring to legislation introduced by Rockefeller and other coal-state Democrats this week that would delay EPA climate-related smokestack rules for two years.
Senior reporter Darren Samuelsohn contributed.