The country's capital saw a flurry of activity yesterday as green groups, think tanks, industries and policymakers drew out battle lines in advance of the public hearings, starting today and running through the week, on U.S. EPA's proposed rule for power plant carbon dioxide emissions.
The agency has already received more than 300,000 comments on the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which, once completed, would place binding emissions rate targets on state power sectors. But the hearings this week carry special weight, as they can act as a public forum for parties looking to defend or attack an already politically charged piece of legislation.
"We don't want to leave any ideas off the table," said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, speaking about the sessions yesterday morning on a conference call with reporters. "All of the comments we receive will be equally accepted, and equally analyzed and considered."
In the four listening sessions, scheduled this week in Denver, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., interested parties will have the opportunity to voice concerns about or suggest changes to the rule, its various "building blocks" and its emissions rate targets. A number of state agencies have already voiced concerns about aspects of the CPP, and the listening sessions' rosters of speakers show a broad range of power producers, citizens' groups and trade associations that will likely have a financial stake in the shape of the final rule.
But more than a forum to discuss the CPP's basic architecture, the public hearings offer parties the opportunity to shape the narrative around EPA's work on climate change, along with the Obama administration's broader Climate Action Plan.
For groups opposed to the rule -- primarily the coal industry, affiliated trade groups and Republican policymakers -- that narrative has begun to form in two primary directions. First, they say, the rule would be economically disastrous, crippling the already constrained coal sector and pushing up electricity prices.
Second, they argue that by circumventing Congress, the president and EPA have exceeded their authority and extended the agency's reach into areas where it has no legal jurisdiction.
Both of these arguments were spelled out in open comments to McCarthy recently in a letter from the Partnership for a Better Energy Future, which includes a broad coalition of business and industry.
Those members "are united by widespread concerns that EPA's proposed rule -- which would institute a new regulatory framework on states transforming how electricity is generated, distributed, transmitted and used -- could eliminate the critical competitive advantage that affordable and reliable electricity provides to the American economy," they wrote.
More fundamentally, "the proposal is based on a flawed interpretation of the Clean Air Act," they wrote. "We therefore urge EPA to go back to the drawing board on this rule."
And even beyond regular critics of EPA and the Obama administration, the outpouring of comments yesterday showed the fissures that have emerged between the Democratic base and a few coal-state Democrats and labor groups that oppose the rule.
"As an organization of energy professionals, we understand how important renewable energy is to combating climate change and balancing our nation's energy portfolio," said Edwin Hill, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), in a statement. "But we don't have the alternative energy capacity necessary to replace the loss of that many power plants according to the EPA's timeline."
The IBEW plans to send its members to this week's public hearings to argue against the rule, Hill said.
'We can do this'
They'll be met by a strong show of support for the rule from green groups, which yesterday promised to deploy their own members and have reserved many of the allotted speaking slots for the coming hearings.
"Throughout the country, our members are going to turn out in force," said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, in a conference call with reporters. "This plan can cut carbon, create jobs, make our air and water more clean, our economy more competitive. There is no doubt that this is a very big deal."
In the past two months since the CPP's launch, green groups and supportive Democrats have worked to paint the rule as the linchpin of the U.S. climate agenda. But they've also stressed their own interpretation of the plan's economic impacts, which they say could yield a net benefit to both energy customers and the economy.
That message was echoed yesterday by Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, who spoke alongside McCarthy during the conference call.
"We don't have to sacrifice a healthy economy for a healthy environment," she said, pointing out that the U.S. gross domestic product has tripled since the enactment of the Clean Air Act, while pollution has been cut by 70 percent.
"There are big benefits to both the public health and the economy in this rule, benefits that are still being overlooked," she said. "States already have a proven track record. We can do this."