Republicans, launching an attack on the Obama administration's powers to act on climate change, proposed a 17% budget cut to the Environmental Protection Agency. The proposed $1.6bn cut to the EPA was the largest in dollar terms of some 70 budgetary measures put forward by Republicans on Wednesday, February 9th.
In a follow-up strike, they repeatedly challenged the legal authority of the agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions during a contentious hearing in Congress. The GOP proposal would block the Environmental Protection Agency from reducing greenhouse gases and reverse the agency's scientific finding that climate change is dangerous.
While the plan might be blocked in the Senate or vetoed by President Obama, the comments during Wednesday's hearing were a fresh indication of the depth of opposition in Congress to action on reducing U.S. carbon pollution. Supporters of the measure to revise the Clean Air Act to take away the EPA's authority to regulate this type of pollution said that curbing emissions would be too costly.
The EPA's planned regulations "would boost the cost of energy, not just for homeowners and car owners, but for businesses both large and small," said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the author of the legislation. "EPA may be starting by regulating only the largest power plants and factories, but we will all feel the impact of higher prices and fewer jobs."
The EPA's effort to tackle the latest and perhaps most challenging environmental problem - global warming - has made it a central target of the new Republican leadership's anti-regulatory agenda. Having failed last year to enact new legislation to curb global warming, the administration is left to use existing law - the Clean Air Act - to start reducing the pollution causing the planet's temperature to rise.
"Congress intends to reassert itself in the statutory and regulatory process at EPA and specifically the Clean Air Act," said Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., chairman of the subcommittee on energy and power. He is a sponsor of a draft bill that would block the EPA from using the law to control heat-trapping pollution.
Lisa Jackson, the EPA chief, said the attacks were part of a larger Republican project to roll back years of environmental and safety protections.
"I think this is a serious effort to weaken the clean air act," she said.
Jackson and the EPA have emerged as prime targets for the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, who have promised to block what they say are "job-killing" regulations.
A number of other Republicans declared the science on climate change was "mixed".
In other exchanges, Jackson was accused repeatedly of overstepping her legal authority by introducing limited regulations on greenhouse gas emissions earlier this year – despite a supreme court ruling that such actions fell within the remit of the EPA.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told the panel that the proposed legislation "would eliminate portions . of the landmark law that all American children and adults rely on to protect them from harmful air pollution."
During more than two hours of testimony, Jackson said the law and overwhelming scientific evidence on global warming compelled the EPA to act.
Jackson said Congress would be wrong to overturn the EPA's 2009 "endangerment finding" that greenhouse gases are a threat to American health and welfare. "Politicians overruling scientists on a scientific question — that would become part of this committee's legacy," she said.
She cited the National Academy of Sciences, the government's chief science advisory body, which has reported that "there is a strong, credible body of evidence, based on multiple lines of research, documenting that the climate is changing and that these changes are in large part caused by human activities."
House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., the author of the draft bill, denied that it would limit the federal government's ability to monitor and reduce health-damaging pollution.
At the same time, Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., proposed a sweeping $1.9 billion cut - about 18 percent - to the amount of money requested for EPA this year by President Obama. Rogers' proposal would also shave millions from EPA programs that reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas, and those that boost energy efficiency in household appliances and collect data on heat-trapping emissions.
The agency has been caught before in shifting political winds. In the past, however, Congress passed nearly unanimously the laws that cleaned up the air and water. Longtime observers say the atmosphere for the agency today has never been more toxic.
"It's really been quite extreme," William Ruckelshaus (left), EPA administrator under Nixon and again under President Ronald Reagan, said of the rhetoric aimed at the agency. "What are they supposed to do? Sit there and do nothing?"
The latest and perhaps most draconian attack came from Newt Gingrich (right), the former House speaker and possible 2012 GOP presidential candidate. Gingrich called for abolishing the EPA and replacing it with an organization more friendly to business.
During a campaign commercial last year, Democrat Joe Manchin (left) of West Virginia used a rifle to blast a hole through legislation limiting the gases blamed for global warming. He won a seat in the Senate.
Mike McKenna, a Republican strategist, says Gingrich and Manchin are outliers in a more reasoned debate over how big the global warming problem is and how to deal with it.
"I don't think the (political) base is ready to throw EPA out the window," McKenna said. "There are plenty of people across the country who want EPA ratcheted down and think it has gone too far, too fast."
In fact, Americans in large numbers do not support the Gingrich - Upton agenda. Public opinion polling released February 2nd by the Opinion Research Corporation finds that Americans don't want to eliminate the EPA as Gingrich suggests, nor do they want Congress to stop it from doing its job of protecting public health, as Chairman Upton and others want to do.
Almost two thirds of Americans (63 percent) say “the EPA needs to do more to hold polluters accountable and protect the air and water,” versus under a third (29 percent) who think the EPA already “does too much and places too many costly restrictions on businesses and individuals.”
More than three out of four Americans (77 percent) -- including 61 percent of Republicans – say “Congress (should) let the EPA do its job.” As far as Gingrich's plan to eliminate the EPA, the survey showed that 67% (two-thirds) of Americans oppose the eliminations of the EPA.
Despite the support for the EPA by the majority of Americans, lawmakers of both parties have already introduced a dozen bills aimed at weakening, delaying or blocking pollution regulations. Business groups invited by congressional Republicans to describe their biggest regulatory burdens singled out EPA rules more than any other.
The main target is the agency's use of the Clean Air Act to control greenhouse gases. The Supreme Court said in 2007 the law could be used to fight global warming.
In 2009, the EPA under Obama put the law in motion by concluding that climate change caused by pollution from industries, automobiles and other sources burning fossil fuels threaten public health and welfare. Some Republicans - and some Democrats from industrial states - aren't convinced that's the case.
Others, including Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., think the law is ill-suited to deal with the problem. Dingell led negotiations over the last major overhaul of the Clean Air Act, in 1990. On Wednesday, he told Jackson the agency's use of the law for global warming has put it in the "intolerable hole in which I find you."
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the committee and author of the climate legislation that passed the House in 2009, circulated a letter in which even the EPA chief in the George Bush era conceded that the agency had a legal obligation to act on climate change. Waxman said that while Republicans could rewrite the nation's laws, they couldn't change scientific evidence showing global warming is a threat.
"The underlying premise of this bill is that climate change is a hoax," Waxman said. "The science hasn't changed in the last two years; in fact, it's only gotten stronger."There's also growing resistance to a host of other regulations expected from the agency. Some were initiated by Obama, but others are the result of courts throwing regulations from the George W. Bush administration. Still others stem from reviews required by law to update standards to reflect the latest science. They cover everything from ground-level ozone, the main ingredient in smog, to coal ash disposal, to rules aimed at reducing pollution blowing into downwind states and from industrial boilers.
The EPA's defenders say the agency is simply following statutes aimed at protecting people's health - something they say has strong support and is necessary for a healthy economy.
Forbes, "Global warming heats up Republican attacks on EPA", accessed February 10, 2011
The Guardian, "Republicans propose $1.6bn cut to Environmental Protection Agency", accessed February 10, 2011
McClatchy, "House panel plans to overturn EPA's finding on climate change", accessed February 10, 2011