House Republicans yesterday spent more than four hours grilling U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy at two wide-ranging hearings that touched on several agency regulations over air and water pollution.
Chief among the criticisms raised by GOP lawmakers was that EPA is focusing on the Clean Power Plan and other climate change initiatives to the detriment of other agency priorities, including ailing water infrastructure.
GOP members said that the lead contamination crisis in Flint, Mich., signaled that EPA has "strayed" from its core mission during the Obama administration. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the full House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he hoped the crisis would refocus the agency on "basic health protections."
"I know that the agency has an ambitious agenda it would like to put in place before President Obama’s tenure in the White House is completed," Upton said. "But the EPA should focus its efforts less on finalizing a wave of new regulations and more on getting back to the basic functions for which the agency was created."
Republicans also slammed the administrator for not visiting areas of the country that they said have been hit hardest by big agency rules. Members raised a slew of concerns about local issues, as well, including athletic turf fields, souped-up race cars and last year’s mine waste spill.
"You’ve given us a smorgasbord of things to go after," said Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) at the day’s second hearing.
McCarthy yesterday morning testified in front of the House Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee. In the afternoon, she appeared before a joint hearing of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittees on Environment and the Economy and on Energy and Power.
Both hearings were ostensibly about the Obama administration’s request to provide the agency with a $127 million funding increase for fiscal 2017. Republicans are likely to reject the proposal.
"By cutting EPA’s budget and reducing its staff levels, our intent is that you’ll refocus your limited resources toward implementing and enforcing congressionally authorized core missions and policies," said Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy. "We want you to do your job — no more, no less."
Clean Power Plan
While the morning appropriations hearing was focused largely on the Flint crisis, GOP lawmakers at both hearings used the opportunity to confront McCarthy about the Clean Power Plan (Greenwire, March 22).
The Clean Power Plan requires states to craft plans to lower carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Last month, the Supreme Court froze the program while litigation plays out; 27 states and many industry and business entities have filed challenges.
At both hearings, McCarthy told lawmakers that about 25 states have signaled that they will continue working toward compliance with the Clean Power Plan and its goals to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
"Many states understand the transition in the energy world right now," she said, indicating that the country is moving away from coal-fired power to renewable sources of energy.
But GOP members repeated concerns about the costs and feasibility of the Clean Power Plan and other agency rules that limit air emissions from the power sector. Republicans from coal states twice accused the administrator of waging war on coal country.
At the morning appropriations hearing, Republican West Virginia Rep. Evan Jenkins said he was disappointed that McCarthy has never visited the coal state in her capacity as EPA administrator.
McKinley of West Virginia raised similar concerns at the afternoon hearing, arguing that McCarthy can’t understand the impact of EPA regulations without visiting the state or its coal-fired power plants.
"You’re part of this bureaucracy that’s passing all these legislative fiats and regulations," McKinley said, "but never really touching base with the people."
House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) signaled that EPA will not receive the $50 million the agency has asked for in its fiscal 2017 budget request for Clean Power Plan implementation activities. He characterized it as a waste of taxpayer money while coal communities are suffering.
In the afternoon hearing, other lawmakers said they worried that EPA, by continuing to offer help to states, may overstep the bounds of the Supreme Court’s stay.
Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), who chairs the Energy and Power Subcommittee, said there is "real angst" over the Clean Power Plan and pledged that his committee will be aggressive in making sure the agency was following the high court’s decision.
"We are going to do everything we can do to do serious oversight to make sure that the stay issued by the Supreme Court is followed," he said.
McCarthy maintained that the Clean Power Plan is on solid legal ground.
"The Clean Power Plan was a reflection of what we thought the direction of the energy transition was heading. What we’re seeing already is that the energy transition is happening towards the lower-carbon sources even more quickly than we had anticipated," she said. "So we fully expect the Clean Power Plan, when it’s looked at on its merits, will be found to be legally solid."
She did not, however, give a clear signal on whether the agency would hold to the deadlines that it originally set out in the plan if the Supreme Court upholds the rule. McCarthy said only that the court had not given any specific instructions to toll the deadlines.
Other EPA issues
GOP lawmakers raised a host of other local and regional issues throughout the two hearings.
At the morning appropriations hearing, Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) pressed McCarthy on whether anyone has been fired for the agency’s role in causing the Gold King mine waste spill in southern Colorado. He accused EPA of adopting a double standard and suggested that a private company would have faced more severe penalties.
McCarthy acknowledged that the spill was a "mistake" on EPA’s part but said that she had found no one had acted irresponsibly.
Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) argued that EPA should consider administratively halting a rule to limit air emissions from the brick and tile industry.
Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), on the other hand, focused on the recent controversy over whether EPA emissions standards for heavy-duty trucks would harm the world of amateur racing.
At issue is a one-sentence provision, buried deep in the agency’s proposed 630-page rule, that an automobile industry trade group has warned would bar the conversion of regular street cars into racing vehicles (E&E Daily, March 16).
McCarthy said that wasn’t the agency’s intent.
"We were very directly trying to make sure we were doing no more than what we were doing before, in terms of either compliance or enforcement," she said. "I fully recognize that this has raised a lot of confusion, and we need to address this confusion moving forward."