U.S. Senate poised to tackle EPA’s emissions authority

The next few days are critical for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The organization declared late last year it would expand its mandate and regulate greenhouse gas emissions from plants and refineries, a move that has not been popular with Republicans and a handful of Democrats.

The Senate will vote in the coming days – potentially as early as Wednesday – on three amendments to a small business bill that could potentially limit the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gasses, an ability that is provided by both the Clean Air Act and a 2007 Supreme Court decision on the agency’s scope. By regulating the emissions of U.S. plants and refineries, the EPA would be able to regulate emissions from sources that represent more than 40 per cent of nationwide greenhouse gas emissions.

However, it must overcome the many legislative roadblocks that, to varying degrees, would prevent it from regulating emissions from stationary sources, including:

  • An amendment sponsored by Democratic Senator Max Baucus that would exclude some farms and businesses (that emit under 75,000 tons of carbon) from the EPA’s greenhouse gas regulation purview. This is considered the most moderate of the proposed amendments.
  • An amendment by Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller that would postpone adoption of new EPA rules by at least two years.
  • A drastic proposal by Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to permanently prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gasses from plants and refineries.

Republicans argue the U.S. economy cannot sustain the costs associated with expanded pollution controls. They need the support of a number of Democrats to pass McConnell’s amendment in a vote that may occur as early as Wednesday, and have indicated they have the support of at least 50 senators in the Democrat-led Senate. Most of the Democrats who have signaled support for the Republican amendment represent states where coal constitutes a large part of the economy.

Though the EPA’s announcement, delivered right after the 111th Congress adjourned in late December, came as a shock to some, the White House has long maintained the EPA would work to restrict emissions in accordance with its legal mandate, whether or not climate legislation was passed.

If any of the proposed amendments fail to gain the 60 necessary Senate votes for passage, the EPA would be poised to expand its authority to regulate emissions, sooner rather than later – unless Republicans in the GOP-dominated House of Representatives are successful at pushing through their own legislation designed to cripple the EPA’s greenhouse gas-regulating authority.

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