One senator’s crusade to combat a McConnell anti-EPA onslaught

By Joel Kirkland | 06/03/2015 08:42 AM EDT

When Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse started his 95th Senate floor speech on global warming, the discerning cable viewer witnessed a shift from his bully pulpit admonition that often begins, "We are sleepwalking our way to a climate catastrophe."

"Mr. President," he said, standing over a small dais in the back of the chamber in April, "the distinguished majority leader, the senior senator from Kentucky, is resolutely opposed to any serious conversation about climate change."

Four months into Sen. Mitch McConnell’s quixotic effort to return the U.S. Senate to consensus-building, the Democrat from Rhode Island laid a shot across McConnell’s bow. Whitehouse chastised McConnell for an open letter he sent to governors urging them to ignore a proposed U.S. EPA rule that would require states to build a plan for slashing power-sector carbon emissions.

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Whitehouse stood in front of an iconic photo of the planet Earth, now propped up behind him for nearly every weekly speech on global warming. He noted its dog-eared corners during his 100th speech last month.

"It turns out that Kentucky is already crafting a plan for complying with President Obama’s Clean Power Plan," Whitehouse said. Relaxed, but buttoned up for a Senate fight, he spoke to a nearly empty chamber and jabbed his finger at the air.

Whitehouse named names: "Kentucky has an energy and environment secretary. His name is Dr. Len Peters. Dr. Peters does not mock or disparage the EPA."

He pointed to state agencies, cities, electric utilities, universities and professors in McConnell’s home state that support climate action. That day, he made a full-throated argument that Kentucky is running away from McConnell, who was re-elected for a fifth time in November. During McConnell’s campaign, tens of millions of dollars were spent on his behalf to turn "Obama’s war on coal" into votes for McConnell.

McConnell’s re-election included support from coal mining counties in eastern Kentucky, where moderate Democrats held onto political power for decades. "Look, I know how grim it is in eastern Kentucky," he told business leaders recently on a post-election return trip to Pikeville, Ky., in the heart of coal country. "But I’m here to say, ‘Let’s not give up. Coal is going to have a future; and it’s our job to see that it has a future in the United States.’"

Whitehouse’s speech targeting McConnell, given during dinner-time hours on the East Coast, marked a departure. Usually his speeches split among climate science, rising sea levels and anger about congressional inaction. This time, from his Senate desk, Whitehouse took aim at the architect of any GOP legislative strategy that emerges after EPA releases its final power plant rule. The proposed rule sets state emissions targets and is designed to cut national power sector emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. It would force power companies to retire some coal-fired power plants, use more natural gas and shift more power generation to zero-carbon sources.

Waging an economic argument

In an interview with EnergyWire, Whitehouse said he’ll do more of the same as EPA moves toward finalizing its Clean Power Plan this summer. He’ll target GOP senators whose states are vulnerable to climate change and economic drift. But he’ll also be McConnell’s foil during floor debates.

Sen. Whitehouse
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). | Photo courtesy of his office.

Whitehouse is a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, where its chairman, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), is the Senate’s most outspoken climate change skeptic. Still, Whitehouse is on the outside of a process led by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which is putting together an energy bill expected to cut across areas of regulation shaping electricity sector development and energy use.

The political scrum around Obama administration air regulations still splits along party lines, since there’s been no real debate in Congress on climate and energy policies since 2010. Girding for a debate over EPA’s rule in which McConnell calls the shots, Whitehouse looks for early leverage through an economic message.

"You continue to emphasize that they’re making a choice here to protect polluting incumbents at the expense of new industries emerging in their states," Whitehouse said. "At some point, the hydraulic difference between the power and economic significance of the new technologies reaches equilibrium with the old ones and begins to exceed them. That shift is coming fast."

Whitehouse is a student of the politics, not nuts-and-bolts regulations. "John Cornyn is not going to ignore the wind energy industry in Texas," he said. "Chuck Grassley will go to war for the wind production tax credit," he added. "They’re 30-something percent in Iowa and climbing. MidAmerican [Berkshire Hathaway Energy] has great jobs maintaining the wind turbines."

Political analysts predict McConnell will try to use the Congressional Review Act to turn back an EPA final rule on carbon. The rarely used legislative strategy allows Congress to stop a major rule on the premise that it’s expensive and too hard to comply with. Such a move would require Obama’s signature, and there aren’t enough votes in the Senate to overturn a veto.

"I think they’ll get blowback from wind, solar and other competing industries, which are furious that they’re seeing old polluting power plants with a huge competitive advantage over them," Whitehouse said.

Whitehouse has predicted that Congress would act once it became clear top-down regulations would go into effect. That hasn’t happened so far.

"For the utility industry, the value is that there may be more efficient ways to get to the same results than all this regulatory apparatus," he said, "allowing them more room to innovate."

Whitehouse has given a speech on the effects of global warming every week that the Senate has been in session since April 2012. It’s a discipline that’s garnered him attention from Senate colleagues and climate activists; but in the world outside of Washington, D.C., the speeches lose out to the day’s hot news and the latest long-shot candidate announcing his run for the presidency.

Whitehouse, 59, came to the Senate in 2007 after defeating Lincoln Chafee, a moderate Republican. He had been a crusading attorney general, taking tiny Rhode Island to battle in a high-profile — though ultimately defeated — public health nuisance case against lead paint manufacturers. And that informed his bully pulpit approach.

During his climate speeches, Whitehouse equates "climate deniers" with the powerful tobacco lobbyists who for decades defeated attempts to raise awareness of public health dangers around smoking.

"It’s a crucial approach," said Gerald Markowitz, a history professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who has written about the Rhode Island childhood lead poisoning nuisance case. "Unless a citizenry is educated about these issues, they’re not in a position to act on them."

Shelves in Whitehouse’s Senate office are packed with books about FDR and other liberal icons. He has every book by Winston Churchill. On a bookshelf closer to his desk, Whitehouse has Markowitz’s books about public health, including one about the lead paint case he brought as attorney general. Long fought, a lower court ruling in the state’s favor was overturned by the state Supreme Court.

"That was the ultimate heartbreak," Whitehouse said.

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