Lawmakers vowing to derail power plant rule have little hope of success

Source: Nick Juliano, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Lawmakers from both parties vowed yesterday to pull out all the stops to block President Obama’s landmark rule to slash greenhouse gas emissions.But their supporters off Capitol Hill were privately grappling with a starker reality: No matter how many bills are introduced or appropriations riders floated, the regulatory process will march on unabated.”I’m kind of depressed,” said one Republican lobbyist who privately acknowledged that any effort to block the rule in Congress would be a “fool’s errand.”

Indeed, while a number of Republicans and moderate Democrats said yesterday that something should be done to stop the rule, none could offer a clear path forward.

Getting a bill targeting the rule through the Republican-controlled House is easy — indeed, legislation from Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) to thwart the rule passed three months ago. But EPA critics have been unable to get anything to the Senate floor in recent years with Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada maintaining a tight grip on the amendment process; most recently, Republicans were thwarted last month in their attempt to secure a vote on a companion to the Whitfield bill during debate over an energy efficiency bill.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who partnered with Whitfield on the power plant bill, said he and his allies were looking at “every option we have” to get it back to the floor because “something needs to be done” to block the rule as it was proposed.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a member of GOP leadership and frequent EPA critic, suggested that only a change in control of the Senate would be effective.

“We’ll continue to offer amendments to try to stop it,” he said. “Elections have consequences, and I’m doing everything I can to make sure Republicans are in the majority next year.”

Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who faces a tough re-election contest, said she would like to do something about the proposed rule, although she stopped short of a specific proposal yesterday.

“I don’t think the EPA should be regulating in this area,” she told reporters. “I think the Congress should be setting the policy and making decisions, so I’m going to be talking with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and to see what kinds of policies we can shape.”

U.S. EPA yesterday released the proposal designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s fleet of existing power plants, which are responsible for about a third of such emissions. It would require states to come up with their own plans to regulate plants more strictly, encourage switching from coal to natural gas, promote expansions of zero-emissions renewable and nuclear power and bolster energy efficiency, among other areas.

The rule is the centerpiece of the sweeping Climate Action Plan, through which President Obama is trying to marshal resources across the federal government in pursuit of his 2009 pledge to other world leaders that the United States would cut its emissions. Other elements of that plan have faced their share of attacks from Congress, mostly in the form of policy riders attached to House appropriations bills, but none of those countermeasures has made it into law. The rule announced yesterday is expected to draw at least as many challenges, although they are likely to meet the same fate as their predecessors.

In addition to the Whitfield bill, the House recently adopted an appropriations bill that would cut climate research spending by 24 percent, among other provisions that drew a rebuke from the White House (E&E Daily, May 30). The House also attached a rider to a defense authorization bill blocking funding for various climate change studies (Greenwire, May 22).

With appropriations season just getting into full swing, the biggest fights likely lie ahead. Neither chamber has unveiled its appropriations bills to fund EPA, the Interior Department or the Department of Energy, although those typically draw the most significant fights over funding levels and policy riders. Still, the Senate has largely been able to prevent anything passed by the House from becoming law, without requiring Obama to break out his veto pen.

“Nothing super-profound is going to make its way through,” said Dan Kish, a senior vice president with the conservative American Energy Alliance. “The fact that Senator Reid doesn’t open up bills for amendment means he’s pretty much been the doorkeeper for anything that goes forward.”

The Congressional Review Act is an option EPA critics hope to eventually exploit to overturn the rule, because CRA resolutions cannot be filibustered. But that tool will not be available until after the rule is finalized a year from now.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tried to establish a novel precedent earlier this year by offering a CRA resolution to overturn EPA’s previous rule to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants, by arguing that although it was still in its proposed stage, it was effectively final because any plant built today would have to comply with the as-yet-unfinalized standards. But the Government Accountability Office, which determines when rules are final for the sake of CRA review, last week rejected that argument (E&E Daily, May 30).

In a statement on yesterday’s rule, McConnell promised to offer legislation this week “to stop the assault on Kentucky and the broader U.S. economy,” although he did not detail what it would include. Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), one of his party’s most endangered incumbents, also pledged to introduce a bipartisan bill “that will prevent these disastrous new rules from wreaking havoc on our economy in West Virginia.”

Despite that bipartisan bravado, there’s little evidence anything will be able to derail the rule in the near term, a conservative lobbyist acknowledged privately.

“This railroad has got a full head of steam.”