Republicans are crowing this week about Democratic divisions over U.S. EPA's proposed power plant carbon limits, but within their own ranks is a less-acknowledged split over whether emissions should be dealt with at all.
That some in the GOP see greenhouse gases as a real environmental threat is no surprise to close congressional observers. As their party coalesces behind a message of regulatory overreach by EPA and uses the proposed rule as a political cudgel against Democrats, however, Republicans who acknowledge the threat of unchecked emissions are far from any coordinated effort to offer an alternative to the regulation.
"Burning fossil fuel does create damage to the environment," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who briefly collaborated on a cross-aisle climate proposal in 2010, said in an interview this week. "I'd like to be for clean air in a business-friendly way."
Even as Graham acknowledged that some Republicans "think carbon pollution is not a problem" and others do, he joined 40 fellow Republicans yesterday in a public repudiation of EPA's rule as a regulatory attempt to impose the sort of cap-and-trade emissions reduction plan the Senate rejected during his last foray into significant environmental legislating.
The four GOP senators not signing onto that anti-EPA letter all have donned the mantle of environmental moderates at some point in recent years, but only a few drew attention to their clean-energy records this week. A spokesman for Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, asked about her absence from the letter, cited a Monday statement in which she pledged to review the power-plant rule while also observing that "climate change is certainly a significant challenge that requires global solutions."
In a separate brief interview, Collins mourned the failure of her partnership with Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) on a 2010 "cap-and-dividend" bill that would have returned 75 percent of its revenues to the public.
Even those Republicans who see "a legislative framework to deal with the very real problem of carbon pollution," Collins added, have "legitimate questions" about whether EPA should carry out the complex, state-specific system of carbon reduction plans its rule envisions.
A spokeswoman for another Republican not joining the anti-EPA letter, Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, pointed to her neutral response to "carefully weigh the costs and benefits of the EPA's proposed rule and its potential impact on" the state. Ayotte voted with Senate GOP leaders in 2011 to stop EPA from issuing "any regulation" on greenhouse gases.
Also absent from the GOP pushback at EPA is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who backed a cap-and-trade plan more stringent than the current power plant rule during his 2008 presidential campaign. McCain's office did not respond to a request for comment on yesterday's letter in time for publication, but the onetime climate hawk said in a brief interview this week that "I'd be glad to talk to" Democrats on the issue if they embraced nuclear power.
Citing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) work to quash a proposed nuclear waste site at Yucca Mountain, McCain lamented that Democrats still "refuse to give any consideration whatsoever" to nuclear's value as a zero-emissions energy source.
In fact, EPA's rule sketches out a key role for existing nuclear plants in ensuring that states can meet their emissions generation goals (Greenwire, June 2).
"When it comes to nuclear, we know there are some questions, but there's no denying that it's carbon free and will be part of the energy mix," EPA chief Gina McCarthy said Tuesday during an online question-and-answer session about the carbon rule.
The fourth Republican who did not sign onto yesterday's anti-EPA letter is Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, whose office did not return a request for comment in time for publication.
Separately yesterday, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and four other Democrats who participated in an all-night session earlier this year to urge aggressive action on climate change invited all 45 Senate Republicans to join them in a debate on the Senate floor for which they requested time Monday evening. No Republicans had accepted the invitation as of yesterday evening, a Whitehouse spokesman said.
"We would welcome an opportunity to engage with our Republican colleagues in a discussion of how to address the problems of climate change," they write. "Indeed, we think our Republican colleagues could have a lot to offer if they wish to join us in exploring solutions."
A GOP alternative?
Bob Inglis, the former South Carolina congressman whose stance on climate change helped drive his 2010 GOP primary defeat by now-Rep. Trey Gowdy, said in an interview that the EPA proposal heightens the "need for an alternative" among his fellow Republicans.
Now executive director of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University, Inglis called on "conservatives to realize there's an opportunity here to advance a free-enterprise solution and a danger that we'll get stuck with a regulatory solution."
But Republicans whose backgrounds put them in prime position to offer those alternative emissions-reduction plans are not emerging with legislative strategies of their own.
Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), whose state is already more than halfway toward meeting its 25 percent renewable electricity standard for 2025 according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, said in an interview this week that he has "been pretty aggressive" on clean energy because of its job-creation potential.
Legislation is the better path to cutting emissions because "the next administration could come in and reverse" a regulation, Heller added. But he demurred when asked about any plans to release a bill on the issue.
On the right flank of the GOP conference are influential voices steering Republicans away from offering any emissions plan of their own.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who has questioned the scientific consensus that links industrial emissions to climate change, pointed abroad to argue that the EPA rule was unnecessary -- and that the GOP held no responsibility to present its own alternative.
Emissions in the United States have been flat or trending down in recent years even as they increase globally on account of rapid development in places like China and India, Barrasso said, reiterating a popular criticism of virtually every U.S. climate proposal put forward for at least the last five years. Barrasso even pulled out his BlackBerry to show a reporter a quote from Secretary of State John Kerry, who acknowledged earlier this week that even if all U.S. emissions were eliminated it would not solve the climate problem.
"Emissions continue to go up" globally, Barrasso said. "The way we jeopardize our own economic growth, our own jobs and our own national security to try to do something the president wants -- that to me does not help us as a nation."
Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee's top Republican, agreed that the EPA proposal would damage the economy. But Murkowski, who has acknowledged the link between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, said Republicans should present narrower proposals to promote the trends that have spurred recent emissions reductions -- such as expanded natural gas use -- without imposing burdensome rules.
"I think what you are going to see are those policies that help to facilitate more certainty in the marketplace, a better taxing structure so that our businesses are encouraged, work on the R&D side so we're building out the technologies that make sense for a clean energy future so that businesses want to do it -- not because businesses are told they must or face fines and penalties," Murkowski said in an interview this week.
As to the existence of a broader divide within the GOP on the question of climate science, Murkowski said that was beside the point.
"If you want to go down this road of, 'OK, these are people who will deny the science, and these are people who will accept the science,' you're not moving forward in solving any problems," she said.
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