EPA climate retreat may give Dems cover

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) pledge Monday to move slowly on the implementation of upcoming greenhouse gas rules may give cover to some Capitol Hill Democrats to vote against blocking climate rules entirely, according to lobbyists and activists.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a letter to a group of Senate Democrats on Monday that upcoming rules to limit emissions from power plants and other industrial facilities won’t take effect in 2010. She also told the eight Democrats — who mostly hail from coal-producing or coal-reliant states — that the rules will initially be narrower than EPA had planned.

Jackson’s statement — in response to a Friday letter from the Democrats — comes ahead of a possible Senate vote next month on Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) filibuster-proof measure that bars EPA from regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

The Senate Democrats may have been seeking EPA concessions they can cite in opposing Murkowski’s plan, according to some lobbyists. EPA’s response also said that Murkowski’s resolution would harm the auto industry, which plays a big economic role in the states of some Democrats who pressed EPA on its plans.

Sen. Mark BegichMark Peter BegichAlaska political mess has legislators divided over meeting place Former GOP chairman Royce joins lobbying shop Lobbying world MORE’s (D-Alaska) signature on the letter to EPA drew criticism from a lobbyist with refinery interests in Alaska.

“The junior senator from Alaska would do well to remember, before he casts a vote on the Murkowski resolution, the importance of the oil and gas industry to his state and the economic harm that would be visited on this sector from an EPA ‘gone wild’ on GHG regulations,” the lobbyist said.

One environmental lobbyist said EPA’s action “absolutely” gives Democrats cover to vote against Murkowski’s plan by providing time for work on climate legislation.

Climate plans simmering on Capitol Hill would create a new system for capping greenhouse gases, but advocates face a big struggle to gain traction in the Senate this year.

Murkowski moved quickly Monday to downplay the importance of EPA’s action as she seeks support for her resolution. Her measure would nullify EPA’s “endangerment finding” that greenhouse gases are a threat to humans. The finding is a legal precursor to regulations.

“While the delay in implementation is a small forced step in the right direction, the Clean Air Act continues to be the wrong tool for the job, and EPA’s timeline continues to create significant and ongoing uncertainty for a business community,” she said in a prepared statement.

Murkowski believes that regulation would be economically harmful, and her resolution has already drawn support from three Democrats: Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Mary LandrieuMary Loretta LandrieuA decade of making a difference: Senate Caucus on Foster Youth Congress needs to work to combat the poverty, abuse and neglect issues that children face Dems wrestle over how to vote on ‘Green New Deal’ MORE (D-La.)

Sen. Jay RockefellerJohn (Jay) Davison RockefellerBottom Line World Health Day: It's time to fight preventable disease Lobbying World MORE (D-W.Va.), who led the letter to EPA from the eight Democrats, is preparing a bill that would temporarily prevent EPA rules while Congress works on a broader climate and energy bill. He praised EPA’s action but said it hasn’t changed his mind.

“I am glad to see that the EPA is showing some willingness to set their timetable for regulation into the future — this is good progress, but I am concerned it may not go far enough,” Rockefeller said in a prepared statement.

“I believe we need to set in stone through legislation enough time for Congress to consider a comprehensive energy bill,” he added. Rockefeller said EPA’s actions would have “enormous implications” for coal states and “these issues need to be handled carefully and appropriately dealt with by the Congress, not in isolation by a federal environmental agency.”

Murkowski’s measure is unlikely to become law even if it clears the Senate. It would still require House passage and faces a White House veto. But a vote that showed majority Senate support for preventing EPA action would nonetheless be a big political setback for advocates of mandatory emissions curbs.

Brad Johnson, a climate researcher for the liberal Center for American Progress, said it is unfortunate that there’s a fight over whether to nullify the endangerment finding at all.

“It is a sad indictment of the state of American politics [that] anyone should need cover to defend science from politics, defend our children's future from polluters and defend our economy from the stranglehold of special interests,” he said.