OUTLOOK ’11: US greenhouse gas rules go up in smoke

29 December 2010 18:05  [Source: ICIS news]

By Joe Kamalick

WASHINGTON (ICIS)--Once-ambitious US federal plans to cap and sharply reduce the nation’s emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) have run out of air, steam and political support.

The political effort to get a climate change bill through Congress began in earnest in 2008 with the election of President Barack Obama and the establishment of solid Democrat majorities in both the House and Senate.

Citing dire warnings of melting glaciers and polar ice caps, catastrophic rising sea levels, continent-wide droughts, mass migrations of human populations and even open warfare, advocates of climate change legislation said it was essential that the US cut its own emissions as a show of global leadership and good faith.

In Congress, the flood of political support for a nationwide cap-and-trade mandate reached high tide in June 2009 when the House passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES Act).

That bill mandated an immediate cap on US emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases, and a steady reduction in those substances until US emissions fell to 83% below 2005 levels by 2050.

But even that congressional high-point for climate change legislation was a razor-thin victory.  The House approved that 1,400-page bill, HR-2454, with a 219-212 vote tally - barely two votes more than the 217 simple majority needed.

Although Democrats held a nearly filibuster-proof majority of 59 seats in the Senate, that body’s consideration of the House-approved bill or a similar measure soon ran into trouble.

A wide coalition of industries, including chemicals and refining, warned that the House-passed cap-and-trade bill would choke off industrial and economic development.  And senators representing states where coal was mined or needed for electric power generation began to get cold feet about climate legislation that would have pretty much ended coal as a generating fuel.

As the so-called “climate-gate” scandal broke in December 2009 - with leaked e-mails suggesting that climate change scientists had suppressed unfavourable data and skewed research results - and the US economy slid further into recession, Senate prospects for a potentially costly cap-and-trade bill were chilled further.

By July 2010, Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts and the leading Senate advocate of climate change legislation, conceded that the Senate could not muster the votes needed to ensure passage of any sort of cap-and-trade bill or other carbon-price measure.

With the demise of climate change in Congress, the Obama administration pressed on with a controversial plan by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to cap and cut US greenhouse gases emissions even without specific authorisation from the legislature.

The EPA argued that under the Clean Air Act and a 2007 US Supreme Court ruling, it had authority to regulate and reduce US greenhouse gas emissions.

Those regulations were to take effect on 3 January 2011, but now even that avenue to climate change enforcement appears headed for a roadblock.

Congressional Republican leaders likely would propose legislation early in 2011 to completely strip the EPA of authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions by US industry, according to Capitol Hill sources.

Robert Dillon, spokesman for the Republican minority on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said that Republican focus would be to deny the EPA's authority to regulate industrial emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) rather than seek a temporary suspension of that power for a couple of years.

Senator John Rockefeller (Democrat-West Virginia) announced late on 17 December that his bill to suspend the EPA's regulation of industrial emissions of greenhouse gases had lost Republican support and would not come to a vote in the remaining days of the 111th Congress.

Rockefeller had sought a two-year suspension of the EPA’s plans to impose limits on GHG emissions by so-called stationary sources such as refineries, power plants and petrochemical facilities.

But in the wake of the November elections in which Republicans won control of the House of Representatives and strengthened their number in the Senate, the party’s strategists were no longer interested in a short-term and temporary suspension of the EPA’s plans.

Dillon said that Rockefeller’s suspension bill did not fail in the lame duck session of Congress because it lost Republican support.

“Republican support for reining in EPA remains as strong as ever,” he said. “There is no lack of support among Republicans, but we don’t control the floor in the Senate. That is between Senator Rockefeller and Senator Reid.”

Dillon was referring to Senator Harry Reid (Democrat-Nevada), who as majority leader controls what bills can be advanced to a floor vote in the Senate and which bills would not be considered.

He said that in light of the election results and coming Republican majority in the House, interest in a temporary approach to blocking the EPA’s plans has waned.

“The Republican preference now is for a definitive resolution, and that is to strip EPA of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases emissions by stationary sources,” Dillon said.

Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy Committee, nearly won Senate passage in June 2010 of her “disapproval resolution”, a bill that would have denied the EPA the authority to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant.

Dillon said that Murkowski remains committed to reining in the EPA but that she is not sure what form new action might take when the 112th Congress convenes in January.

“We will likely see the House move first on this,” he said, noting that incoming Republican leaders in the House have already vowed to curb the EPA on greenhouse gas and other regulatory plans.

He said that congressional interest in a temporary suspension of EPA’s role in greenhouse gases regulation was based on the assumption that Congress in time would pass some sort of cap-and-trade mandate that would replace the EPA rules.

“But given what happened in the last election and what is going to be happening in the next Congress, cap-and-trade is not a reality,” he said. “The focus now is on a permanent solution, denying EPA authority to regulate greenhouse gases.”

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By: Joe Kamalick
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