Measures attacking Obama green agenda advancing to House floor

Source: Sean Reilly, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, June 9, 2016

The House Rules Committee took triple-barreled aim at the Obama administration’s environment and energy agenda last night, clearing the way for floor votes this week on a bill to delay U.S. EPA’s new ground-level ozone standard, as well as two resolutions offering symbolic opposition to potential climate change policies.

Administration regulations are “killing our jobs,” Rules Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) said shortly before the panel voted 7-4 along party lines to advance all three measures.

H.R. 4775, which would roll back full implementation of the 70 parts per billion ozone benchmark until the middle of the next decade, is set for a floor vote this afternoon, followed later in the week by the two resolutions. H.Con.Res. 89describes a carbon tax as “detrimental” to the U.S. economy. H.Con.Res. 112opposes Obama’s proposed $10-per-barrel oil tax.

The ozone measure had already raised hackles with EPA; the White House followed up yesterday by warning of a veto should the bill win final congressional passage. Besides objecting to the proposed eight-year delay in implementing the new ozone standard, the administration also opposes a provision that would stretch out the cycle for reviewing — and potentially tightening — the standards for ozone and five other “criteria” air pollutants from once every five years to once every decade.

The bill “would undermine the vitally important environmental and health protections of the [Clean Air Act],” the White House said in the statement of administration policy, released just as the committee meeting was getting under way. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) carried on the attack soon after, telling the panel that the measure would “gut” the act.

It would “allow the polluters to override the scientists,” Castor said.

But the bill, introduced in March by Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas), has 43 co-sponsors, including several Democrats and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.).

Sessions and other Republicans pointed to last week’s unexpectedly dismal jobs report as a reason to hold off on proceeding with the new standard, which critics say could make it harder for new industrial plants to get environmental permits.

“We know that the economy’s still sputtering; we don’t want to create additional obstacles to economic growth,” Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in support of the legislation. Whitfield also noted that EPA regulators only last year issued final instructions for implementation of the previous 75 ppb standard dating back to 2008.

Ground-level ozone is formed by the reaction of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds in sunlight. Besides helping to trigger asthma attacks, it can irritate lung passageways and worsen emphysema symptoms. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy set the 70 ppb standard last October, citing the agency’s statutory responsibility to protect public health in response to growing scientific research on ozone’s effects.

Although predictably ignoring Castor’s suggestion yesterday to scrap the bill, Rules Committee Republicans gave the go-ahead to floor votes on four Democratic amendments, including one by Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) to allow the aggregation of emissions from oil and gas wells, and another by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) that would effectively scuttle any part of the measure that EPA deems potentially dangerous to human health or the environment.

H.R. 4775 is among a series of GOP legislative forays to delay or blunt new air pollution rules. In March, the House approved H.R. 4557, introduced by Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), to freeze compliance with emissions regulations on brick kilns until all lawsuits surrounding the new standards are resolved, and H.R. 3797, sponsored by Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-Pa.), to exempt power plants fueled by coal refuse from some parts of EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. The administration has leveled veto threats against both; neither has thus far shown any sign of advancing in the Senate.

The same fate awaits H.R. 4775, Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) predicted. While almost assured of winning House approval today, it’s “not going anywhere,” Hastings said.

That probable outcome didn’t stop business and environmental lobbies from mounting last-ditch drives for and against the measure.

H.R. 4775 would strike a balance “between environmental stewardship and economic and employment growth,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in a letterto lawmakers made public late yesterday, with a boldface notation that today’s floor vote could be included in the influential business group’s annual scorecard. Earlier in the day, the National Association of Manufacturers sounded a similar note.

On the other side, dozens of environmental and public health groups sought to rally opposition. H.R. 4775 would systematically weaken the Clean Air Act “without a single improvement … and delay life-saving health standards already years overdue,” organizations ranging from Clean Air Watch to the Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions wrote in a joint letter.

Similar passions surround the two resolutions, even though they will have no practical impact. Obama proposed the $10-per-barrel oil tax in his 2017 budget request to pay for a “21st Century Clean Transportation System” that would both cut greenhouse gas emissions and bolster public works.

While Republicans instantly pronounced the proposal dead, the two resolutions will send a clear signal that “we oppose misguided policies that would drive up energy prices,” Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.), the sponsor of the oil tax resolution, said at the hearing. Although the White House has not proposed a carbon levy, Obama has said that such a tax is a better way of addressing climate change than regulations (E&E Daily, June 6).

Democrats took the occasion yesterday to again decry Republican inaction on climate change, along with many GOP lawmakers’ refusal to acknowledge that it exists.

“It was said here you’re sending signals,” Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, told the Rules panel. “How about doing real work?”

While many right-leaning groups have endorsed the anti-carbon tax measure, sponsored by Scalise, five libertarian and conservative organizations yesterday urged representatives to vote against the resolution when it comes to the floor as soon as Thursday.

In a letter to members of the House, the five groups said they are concerned that the resolution presents a “limited perspective on carbon taxes.” A carbon tax, they said, is economists’ preferred way of lowering carbon dioxide emissions and could lower the cost of climate policy nationwide.

“The least burdensome, most straightforward and most market-friendly means of addressing climate change is to price the risks imposed by greenhouse gas emissions via a tax,” the organizations wrote.

The GOP resolution, they said, fails to take into account that a carbon tax could replace existing climate regulations, such as EPA’s Clean Power Plan, as well as be included in comprehensive tax reform. Conservatives and free-market advocates should “embrace” a market policy in lieu of regulations “regardless of how they view climate risks,” the letter says.

Representatives from the Niskanen Center, R Street Institute, former South Carolina Republican Rep. Bob Inglis’s group RepublicEn, the Evangelical Environmental Network and the American Enterprise Institute signed the letter.

Environmental groups also yesterday urged House members to oppose the resolution. The resolution is “the latest example of climate action denial being advanced by extreme members of the House of Representatives,” groups wrote to lawmakers.

Reporter Amanda Reilly contributed.