House GOP grills EPA official in first hearing on new carbon rule

House Republicans on Thursday grilled a top Environmental Protection Agency official in the first hearing on the administration’s new standards for reducing carbon pollution from existing power plants.

The head of the EPA’s air and radiation division, Janet McCabe, received no warm welcomes from House Republicans on the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on power.

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"Coal faces a devastating one-two punch from EPA," subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) said Thursday. "With this new proposed rule the agency can begin shuttering existing coal facilities."

McCabe defended the new carbon rule, a centerpiece of President Obama’s climate agenda. She stressed the agency was giving states flexibility in how they met the EPA’s new standards, which are expected to cut carbon dioxide from the nation's existing power plants 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

She said that the coal industry as a whole is already in a transition.

"The coal fleet is aging; half of the nation's plants are in their 40's," McCabe told the subcommittee. "There is a transition going on in the industry already."

McCabe went on to say that states will be able to focus on coal plants that have a long life ahead of them, but should consider not investing in their oldest plants.

"It doesn't make as much sense to put money into [older coal plants,]" she said.

Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who is running against Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) for her seat this year, pressed McCabe on that point.

"But isn't it the inherent nature of the rule that the only way [emissions goals] can be reached without the federal government squeezing the state would be to shut down a coal plant?" Cassidy said.

McCabe disagreed, adding that coal will still provide 30 percent of the nation's electricity generation in 2030.

For their part, Democrats defended McCabe and the administration's proposal, calling it a significant step forward on climate change.

"If my Republican colleagues have a better idea for protecting our planet for our children and grandchildren, they should speak up," Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said.

The hearing begins a new phase in the fight over the carbon regulations. The proposed rule was published Wednesday in the Federal Register, launching a 120-day public comment period. 

Republicans didn't let up, pressing McCabe on the administration's involvement in drafting the rule.

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) asked McCabe for details on the number of meetings she had with White House adviser John Podesta leading up to the proposal.

McCabe said the meetings were infrequent. But Pompeo didn't buy it, calling Podesta's involvement a sign that the rule was about "politics."

"This is about politics, that's why Podesta was over at the EPA working on this," Pompeo said. "This is not about the law."

After the hearing, McCabe spoke briefly with reporters, arguing that the EPA would not have proposed the carbon emissions standards without a "lawful reading of the Clean Air Act."

"It's a solid proposal, and a lot of people have seen a lot of benefits in the way we have approached the rule," McCabe told reporters. "We are going to continue to talk to people to make sure it's as workable as possible."