Returning from a week-long recess, the Senate confronts voting on amendments that would halt EPA rulemaking to limit emissions from stationary sources, including power plants and refineries. There appears to be an excellent chance that such a ban, for two years at least, will get enough Democratic votes to pass.

The Environmental Protection Agency is moving toward putting new requirements for major stationary sources in place, starting later in 2011 and in 2012 with New Source Performance Standards for electric utilities and oil refineries. 

Senate Majority Leader Reid (D-Nevada) apparently agreed before the recess last week to allow floor votes to prohibit or delay this action, as amendments to an unrelated small business bill.  Enactment of either a permanent ban (via an amendment sponsored by Majority Leader Grant McConnell (R-Kentucky), or a two-year ban, sponsored by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-West Virginia), would prevent EPA from carrying out its responsibility under the Clean Air Act to promulgate emissions-limiting rules pursuant to the agency’s scientifically based Endangerment Finding.  Floor action on the proposed amendments, originally expected before the recess, was delayed as party leaders counted votes and jockeyed for position.

The McConnell amendment is essentially the same as legislation to kill EPA climate-related rulemaking introduced earlier as stand-alone legislation (S. 482) by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), a leader in the global warming denial machine. The Inhofe bill, commonly referred to as Upton-Inhofe (or is it Inhofe-Upton?), is the same as legislation (H.R. 910) approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 15. The House version of the bill (titled the “Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011”, though it does not deal with tax policy) is expected to reach the House floor for debate and final vote shortly after mid-April.

All but four of the 48 Republican Senators are officially signed on to Inhofe’s S. 482 as co-sponsors (excepting only Snowe and Collins of Maine, Brown of Massachusetts, and Kirk of Illinois). These 44 can be expected to support the McConnell-Inhofe amendment to the small business bill.  But since, as a practical procedural matter, 60 votes will be needed for passage, they would need to peel off at least 12 and potentially as many as 16 Democrats to join them.

It appears that the votes of numerous Democratic Senators are potentially in play on legislation to kill or delay EPA climate-related rulemaking. Some of them, at least, can raise legitimate questions and voice legitimate concerns about how regulation might affect manufacturing jobs directly and other jobs indirectly in their states. But I would be a bit surprised if so many of them associated themselves with the right-wing approach of the Inhofe bill.

Probably much more likely is that, having disposed of the McConnell-Inhofe amendment, a fair number of Democrats will join with Republicans to pass the proposed Rockefeller amendment to delay further action by EPA for the next two years. The ostensible rationale for such a delay is to give Congress time to enact new legislation to deal with climate and energy in some alternative way.

Of course, Congress is highly unlikely to enact meaningful climate legislation in the next two years, and perhaps for a good deal longer than that, after the Obama Administration and Senate Democrats screwed up their opportunity to get something done during 2009-2010. That kind of opportunity, which requires the alignment of multiple forces and effective execution, doesn’t come around very often.

But “let Congress do this, it’s a Congressional responsibility that shouldn’t be left to unelected bureaucrats” can serve as a convenient rationale (cover story? fig leaf?) for not doing anything – at least, not doing anything until sometime after the next national election – while undercutting a federal agency charged with carrying out responsibilities given to it by the Congressionally enacted Clean Air Act, with its authority to regulate carbon emissions upheld by a U.S. Supreme Court decision.  

Rockefeller presumably will argue that a two-year delay would give Congress time to enact meaningful energy legislation that would lead to reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and promote alternatives to current coal technology.  So: how likely is it that the current Congress will agree on a substantial, coherent, and environmentally sound energy bill?  Why would doing so require blocking action by EPA for years, except as a political payoff to fossil fuel interests that are unlikely to support good energy legislation?  One can be skeptical.

On March 17, E&E News PM (subscription required) quoted Rockefeller thus:

The West Virginian has said he would not support Inhofe’s permanent pre-emption bill, because it would “emasculate the EPA.”

Still, he has said a temporary stay on EPA rules is necessary to allow coal-fired power plants to transition to low-carbon technologies.

“We don’t have an energy policy,” Rockefeller continued. “We don’t have the technology properly developed. We do in West Virginia, but others aren’t investing in that technology because they feel the EPA is going to change the rules on them. And so two years is just perfect. And people understand that. I mean, there’s a reason that we have a lot of votes.”

EPA rulemaking on greenhouse gases will/would be phased in over a period of years, with steps (albeit far short of what is truly needed) in the right direction on climate change and promotion of more efficient energy use. There is much to be debated on climate and energy policy.  Does Rockefeller have a good argument?  At this point it seems to me that for Senators to keep EPA from doing its job would be a major cop-out.

And Democrats, in supporting the Rockefeller two-year delay, would be in conflict with the position that has been held steadily (so far) by the President.  If anything like this comes out of Congress when the dust settles, it would put Obama in the position of having either to veto a “bipartisan” decision or abandon a principled position on climate policy.

Earlier posts:

Partisan climate science denialism reigns as U.S. House committee votes to repeal EPA Endangerment Finding and prohibit regulation of greenhouse gases

Will Obama stand up under pressure on EPA regulation of greenhouse gases?

Draft Republican bill would repeal EPA scientific “Endangerment Finding” on greenhouse gases and prohibit regulation