House GOP pushes 3 controversial bills curtailing rules to a vote

This story was updated at 9:48 a.m.

House Republicans say this week's three planned votes to limit environmental regulation would benefit working Americans and the economy that supports them.

"America doesn't work if middle class families are taking home less," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's (R-Va.) office in a message to members Friday. This week's votes to curtail U.S. EPA rules for greenhouse gas emissions, constrict environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act and ease permitting for coal mines would help "build an America that works," it said.

The House will vote Wednesday or Thursday on H.R. 3826, a bill that would restrict EPA's plans to force all U.S. power plants to lower their greenhouse gas emissions.

The measure, sponsored by Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), would strike down EPA's proposed mandate that new coal-fired power plants use carbon capture and storage technology to limit their emissions. Whitfield has cast his bill as an attempt to keep new coal-fired generation viable if market conditions improve.


"What we're trying to preserve is in the future if the need is there, this is an option that is there: to build a coal plant," he said in a recent interview. "That's all we're talking about."

CCS, he says, is not cost-effective enough to allow new plants to go forward, despite statements to the contrary by EPA and environmentalists.

But the Natural Resources Defense Council's Franz Matzner said Whitfield's bill was anything but moderate. "It just basically says don't clean up dangerous carbon pollution," he said. "They've set up a system of hurdles and tricky steps that are impossible to meet and that would just shut down the process."

A large coalition of energy producers and consumers in a letter last week heralded Whitfield's bill as "a more reasonable path forward in relation to the [EPA's] greenhouse gas regulations."

More than 100 groups signed the letter to lawmakers, charging that EPA had sidestepped cost analysis requirements in issuing its proposal, which was printed in the Federal Register on Jan. 8.

"By law, these regulations are supposed to be flexible and take into account cost and commercial availability; however, in practice the EPA's proposed [greenhouse gas] regulations have been the exact opposite," said the coalition. CCS, it said, is not yet commercially available. Requiring its use means "effectively banning the construction of coal-fired power plants going forward."

The letter continues: "With similar regulations on existing power plants due in June, followed immediately by regulations on other energy-intensive industries, the EPA's heavy-handed approach is not an encouraging sign for the regulated community."

EPA is set to propose a guidance for today's power fleet by June 1, though officials have ruled out mandating CCS for current coal plants. The agency has not said that New Source Performance Standards for manufacturing are on the immediate horizon.

Many of the signatories on the letter -- including the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity -- are behind a multimillion-dollar push announced in January to oppose the EPA rules (Greenwire, Jan. 30).

But it is unclear whether Whitfield's effort to limit EPA rules will fare any better than a bid last Congress by Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) to stop the agency from regulating heat-trapping emissions outright.

The bill is likely to clear the House with little difficulty and has attracted seven Democratic co-sponsors. But while Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has introduced a companion in the upper chamber, he has not said what his strategy will be to bring it to the floor. And alternative measures by several Republican senators likewise face an uphill battle.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), for example, proposed an amendment to unrelated legislation in January that would have prevented EPA from moving forward with the rules until it completes and publicizes an accounting of what he projects to be their negative economic impacts (E&E Daily, Jan. 9). He said last week he might revive the measure.

"The first thing you do when you have a bill is to find out if you have enough support to have it as something that can pass, and if not, does it have good propaganda value?" Inhofe said. "And I think this might pass both tests."

The Oklahoma senator said Republicans and "a few Democrat endangered species" would support his measure, referring to those running for re-election this year in swing states.

NEPA fast-track bill heads to floor

House lawmakers will also take another shot this week at setting the first-ever deadlines for agencies to complete environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act.

GOP leadership has scheduled a floor vote on H.R. 2641, labeled the "Responsibly and Professionally Invigorating Development Act." The so-called RAPID Act, spearheaded by Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), would fast-track the NEPA process by implementing hard deadlines on environmental reviews that currently have no set deadlines and can stretch on for years. A similar measure cleared the House last Congress, only to die in the Senate.

Marino's bill would mandate a 4.5-year maximum deadline to complete the review process, including an 18-month maximum for the environmental assessment and a 36-month maximum for an environmental impact statement. The measure would also reduce the statute of limitations to 180 days for challenging an agency's environmental review.

Marino signed on four Democratic co-sponsors last summer, but Reps. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) and Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) withdrew their names several days later. Democratic Reps. Bill Owens of New York and Collin Peterson of Minnesota remain among the bill's 12 co-sponsors. Business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have lauded the effort.

Other Democrats have argued that the bill would make the NEPA process less accountable. Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said last summer that the measure "could jeopardize public health and safety by prioritizing speed over meaningful analysis" (E&E Daily, July 19, 2013).

Stream rule bill on agenda

The House is also scheduled to take up legislation by Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) against one of the Obama administration's top actions to boost oversight of coal mining.

The bill, H.R. 2824, would block the Office of Surface Mining from issuing its so-called Stream Protection Rule.

Instead, OSM would have to work with states to implement the so-called Stream Buffer Zone rule, issued during the previous administration.

Many pro-coal lawmakers have accused the agency of jeopardizing the economy, particularly coal jobs, through the new rulemaking, which is expected to affect both surface and underground mining operations.

Debate over the rule has raged in Congress for several years, particularly in the House Natural Resources Committee. GOP leaders there accuse the administration of trying to hide job loss estimates by telling former contractors to change their review parameters.

An Interior Office of Inspector General report found that OSM indeed told former contractors to use a different formula for calculating the economic impacts of an early version of the rule but didn't do so with political or nefarious motivations.

This week's debate is likely to center on that report, President Obama's coal policies in general and the merits of mountaintop-removal mining. Democrats are likely to bring up a recent federal court decision that struck down the Stream Buffer Zone rule because OSM didn't engage in consultations with the Fish and Wildlife Service during its development (Greenwire, Feb. 21).

The Rules Committee was scheduled to meet today to discuss the NEPA measure and Johnson's bill but has postponed that meeting because of inclement weather. Whitfield's bill will come before the committee tomorrow.

Schedule: The meeting on H.R. 2641 and H.R. 2824 is TBA.

Schedule: The meeting on H.R. 3826 is Tuesday, March 4, at 3 p.m. in H-313, the Capitol.

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