With House passage of bill scrapping carbon rules expected today, eyes turn to Senate odds

Source: Jean Chemnick and Manuel Quiñones, E&E reporters • Posted: Thursday, March 6, 2014

If legislation to stymie U.S. EPA carbon rules is to clear the Senate this Congress, it will be because moderate Democrats from coal states insist on it, a key House legislator said yesterday.Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) expects to see his bill to scrap EPA greenhouse gas rules for the utility sector pass the House today with little difficulty.But the Energy and Power Subcommittee chairman acknowledged last night that the Senate version — S. 1905, sponsored by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) — faces more hurdles.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would be unlikely to bring the bill to the floor, especially if it proves to be an election-year liability for vulnerable coal-state Democrats, as Whitfield and other Republicans have said it will be.

But even without a Senate vote on the measure to put them on record, EPA’s current and forthcoming restrictions on coal use are hurting Democratic incumbents running for re-election, Whitfield said last night. And their best strategy might be to ask Reid to schedule a vote.

“What does Harry Reid want to do? He wants to keep the Senate Democrat,” said Whitfield. “So if his Democratic senators come to him and they say, ‘This is beginning to be an issue,’ then he’s got a decision to make.”

“That’s how it’s going to happen,” he said.

Manchin, meanwhile, is still shoring up support for his bill, which currently boasts only one official co-sponsor, Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.). Manchin said he has received “positive” feedback from Democrats he has reached out to, though they have yet to sign onto the bill.

Manchin said yesterday that his first order of business would be to try to convene a meeting with new Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to brief them about the bill.

“I’m going to talk to our new Energy chairman, Mary, and make sure that she is up to speed,” he said, “even though I know it goes through Barb.”

EPW has primary jurisdiction over EPA-related legislation — not the Energy panel. And it would be difficult to find a senator who is less likely to sympathize with Manchin’s bid to limit EPA carbon rules than Boxer, who has dedicated her chairmanship to fending off just that kind of regulatory rollback.

Persuadable Democrats?

But Democrats from coal-rich or coal-dependent states appear to be more persuadable. Manchin joined with other Senate moderates — Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.) and Mark Warner (Va.) — in making opening speeches at a coal technology symposium that was held yesterday in the Energy Committee room.

Their stated goal was to work with coal companies and environmental groups to find solutions for making coal cleaner, recognizing its continued importance in the country’s energy landscape.

“This is the beginning, not the end, of an effort, because we want coal on behalf of the American consumers,” Heitkamp said. “This is going to be among our top priorities in our Senate offices.”

The symposium was similar to an event hosted last week by the Global CCS Institute at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., where advocates outlined challenges to commercial deployment of the technology (Greenwire, March 3).

But while last week’s meeting largely strayed from EPA’s proposed greenhouse gas rule for new power plants, Manchin, Heitkamp and Donnelly questioned the commercial viability of carbon capture and sequestration, which EPA would require for all new coal generators. They did not say whether they would back Manchin’s bill.

The lawmakers were united in questioning the White House’s fiscal 2015 blueprint seeking to cut roughly $90 million from the Department of Energy’s coal research efforts, many of which are focused on CCS (Greenwire, March 4).

“Governors and presidents propose; legislators dispose,” Warner said, signaling the likelihood that Congress will allocate more money than the president requested, as in years past.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz would likely disagree with Warner’s assertion that research programs are being essentially “frozen.” This week, Moniz called the fossil energy program “strong.”

Also yesterday, Warner, staying away from a strong opinion on EPA rulemaking, called on companies to boost their own focus on promoting clean coal technologies, rather than use their energy simply to oppose adverse regulations and legislation.

Manchin stressed that neither he nor his colleagues were global warming deniers. Likewise, he wanted environmental groups to recognize the importance of coal, and he encouraged them to come up with solutions rather than opposition.

Speaking of the Obama administration, Manchin said, “I believe it when they say that we need an all-in in energy policy. I’m not sure that they do.”

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has said the agency’s proposed standard will encourage low-emissions technology. Heitkamp responded, “I would suggest to her that she should read the Clean Air Act.”

While Democrats from coal states would have to take the lead in pushing for a bill like Manchin’s, it might also get support from vulnerable Democrats, like Landrieu and Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who are often concerned about EPA’s constraints on oil and gas production.

“Anytime you want to examine EPA rules, I’m open to that,” said Begich yesterday. But he hastened to add that Alaska would not be directly affected by EPA regulation of coal-fired power plants. Alaska has a handful of coal plants, but they are exempt from the rules, he said.

“We’ll look at what [Manchin] has, but it’s not really affecting us in terms of our coal production and use in our state,” said Begich.

House debate on Whitfield bill, amendments

The House spent much of yesterday afternoon debating the Whitfield bill and eight amendments, which will receive votes today.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said as debate began that the bill is an abdication of Congress’ responsibility to act on a pressing global issue.

“My message to my Republican colleagues is simple: If you don’t like what EPA is doing, tell us your plan,” he said. “If you have other ideas for reducing carbon pollution to prevent catastrophic climate change, let’s hear about them.”

But House Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said the bill would stop a “backdoor energy tax” that penalizes U.S. businesses.

Amendments to the bill were evenly divided between its Republican supporters and Democratic opponents.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) noted that coal is particularly important in her state, which derives more than 90 percent of its power from it. Capito offered an amendment that would allow EPA to require the use of technologies that were developed abroad as long as they had been used on U.S. power plants.

The underlying bill bars the agency from mandating the use of a technology based on federally funded projects — like carbon capture and storage projects that received Energy Department funds.

“We should encourage the implementation of cleaner coal technologies, but a ban on coal plants will not encourage new technologies but leave promising technologies on the shelf, and the economic advantage offered by our natural resources is lost,” said Capito in remarks on the floor yesterday.

Lawmakers today are scheduled to vote on five Republican amendments and three floated by Democrats.