Bid to kill EPA coal plant regulations thwarted in Senate

Senate lawmakers on Wednesday blocked a GOP-led effort to scuttle Environmental Protection Agency regulations that mandate cuts in mercury pollution and other toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The 46-53 vote against Sen. James Inhofe’s (R-Okla.) resolution staves off what would have been a stinging election-year rebuke of the White House green agenda.

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Five Republicans joined 48 Democrats in blocking Inhofe’s measure to overturn regulations that coal industry groups and other critics contend will hurt the economy, cause power costs to spike and force numerous plants to shutter.

Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Olympia Snowe (Maine), Susan Collins (Maine), Scott Brown (Mass.), and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) opposed Inhofe's plan. Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Mark Warner (Va.), and Jim Webb (Va.) joined most Republicans in supporting Inhofe's failed proposal.

“A substantial amount of the electricity we produce in the country comes from coal. And this new regulation would devastate the jobs that depend on this cheap, abundant resource,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on the Senate floor Wednesday ahead of the vote.

But backers of the rules say the claims of economic harm are vastly overblown, and argue that planned coal-plant closures stem from an array of factors, including competition from low-cost natural gas.

They point to projections of major public health benefits from the regulation. EPA estimates that the air toxics standards will prevent 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 cases of childhood asthma per year, among other benefits.

EPA projects the value of the health benefits — stemming from reducing air toxics as well as sulfur dioxide and fine particulate matter — could reach $90 billion per year. The rule will have estimated costs of $9.6 billion annually, according to EPA.

The White House threatened to veto Inhofe’s plan on Monday.

“The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will ensure that the Nation's power plants install modern, widely available technologies to limit harmful pollution — leveling the playing field for power plants that already have such controls in place,” the White House said.

The White House action illustrates President Obama’s collision with Mitt Romney on EPA rules, including the so-called maximum achievable control technology (MACT) standards for coal plants.

Romney, the presumptive GOP White House nominee, criticized the EPA rule but did not comment directly on Inhofe’s resolution.

“Governor Romney has made clear that he opposes the Utility MACT, which costs more than $1,500 for every one dollar reduction in mercury pollution,” said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul.

Earlier in the day Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said that the EPA regulation is an example of Obama ignoring Congress.

"His administration has bypassed the Congress, bypassed the will of the people, and they're clearly trying to do by regulation what I believe the Congress would never do," Blunt said.

In a floor speech Wednesday, Manchin expressed support for Inhofe's resolution ahead of the vote, splitting with Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) who strongly opposed it.

"From the day I arrived in the Senate I've been determined to stop the EPA's job-killing agenda, and this resolution of disapproval takes an important step to rein in this out of control agency," Manchin said.

The vote marks the second time in recent months that Senate lawmakers have defeated resolutions brought under the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to overturn an EPA power plant rule.

In November the Senate turned back Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) CRA resolution to nullify the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which requires curbs in smog and particulate-forming pollution from plants in 27 states in the eastern half of the country.

The CRA is a mid-1990s law that allows Congress to nullify final agency regulations but has been used successfully just once.

Resolutions under the CRA are immune from filibuster, but it’s a blunt instrument, forcing lawmakers to vote on whether they want to nullify pollution standards rather than just modify regulations.

Inhofe’s measure was likely harmed by a proposal by Alexander and Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) that would extend the compliance period for EPA’s air toxics rule by several years without nullifying it — a plan that gave some lawmakers cover to oppose Inhofe.