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What will the GOP do about EPA climate regs?

Last June, EPA released an ambitious proposal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. Many state regulatory agencies and attorneys general went into near panic, coal companies into shock, business trade groups into battle, and conservatives into existential alarm over one of the most ambitious regulatory initiatives ever to come out of the EPA. 

The GOP, however, has no strategy to roll the regulations back save for bitter complaint and wishful thinking. The question for the Right is whether to invest in a hopeless rear-guard action to block the rules or to craft an attractive political initiative to displace those rules with something less onerous. 

{mosads}Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) threatens to use the appropriations process to defund agency promulgation and enforcement of the new rules. That road, however, ends in a presidential veto that Republicans lack the votes to override. Raising the ante with threats about a government shutdown would be political suicide given that 78 percent of Americans in a recent survey supported federal limitation of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Eliminating the regulations via legislation is hopeless as long as there are at least 40 votes in the Senate to sustain a filibuster. With the Republicans defending 24 Senate seats in the next election and the Democrats defending 10, don’t count on a filibuster-proof Senate in the foreseeable future. 

Lawsuits might stop the regulations, but only for a time, sending the agency back to the drawing board with new rules will follow. There’s no guarantee that the new rules will be an improvement over the old. 

Many conservatives would like to take a page out of the Obamacare resistance playbook and have state legislatures prevent their regulatory agencies from filing the required state implementation plans. But given that the EPA is more than capable of writing the regulations directly, that accomplishes little. 

In theory, some future Republican president could order the EPA to reverse course. But that could only happen were the agency to reverse its “endangerment finding”—made under the Clean Air Act—that there are significant human health risks associated with greenhouse gas emissions. As long as the Clean Air Act stands, that finding must be based on scientific evidence. Given that EPA’s present finding is consistent with 97.1 percent of the published papers in the scientific literature that have taken a position on the matter, it is unlikely that the courts would allow such a reversal. 

A future Republican EPA administrator could adopt a policy of regulatory delay by extending state implementation plan deadlines, half-heartedly defending industry legal challenges, dragging out rulemakings, and slow walking every step of the process. That can work, but it would only delay the inevitable. 

Were repeal-minded Republicans to capture the White House and hold the Congress in 2016, they might conceivably get around a Democratic filibuster via budget or reconciliations bills (which cannot be filibustered). Yet that route leads to political thermonuclear war, which is why neither party has gone down that road very often no matter how important the issue. 

Still, many conservatives appear to believe that time is on their side. If they can just hold on for a little while longer, the evidence that climate change is a hoax—or, at the very least, a non-event—will become so overwhelming that the tide of public opinion will turn and, thus, the tide of public policy. That’s unlikely. Scientific evidence of global warming, and man’s responsibility for it, continues to mount. Even the most prominent climate “skeptics”—Richard Lindzen, John Christy, Pat Michaels, and Judith Curry—accept that narrative. How long can conservative elites get away with making arguments rejected by their own scientists? 

EPA’s power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions is likely here to stay unless Democrats can be persuaded to voluntarily give it up. And Democrats aren’t going to do that for nothing. 

There is only one way out of this. Republicans should forward a bill that would (1) eliminate EPA authority to regulate greenhouse gases, and (2) impose an economy-wide, revenue neutral carbon tax.  Far better to let market actors decide when, where, and how emissions are reduced than to leave that decision to state and federal regulatory agencies. The revenues from a tax would be used to cut capital gains taxes, corporate income taxes, or other taxes that discourage wealth creation. And some of the revenues could be used to transfer resources to the poor to reduce or eliminate the regressive nature of the tax changes. 

Refusing to explore a deal along those lines would tell us that the Right prefers EPA command-and-control regulation to any conceivable alternative. That’s not what they would be telling their base, but that’s what they would be telling those of us who live in political reality. 

Taylor is the president of the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank, in Washington, DC.  (

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