Top Republicans Say They Will Attack Rules on Power Plants, Ozone After Seizing Senate

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By Anthony Adragna

Nov. 7 — Senate Republican leaders signaled their intent to roll back a broad array of environmental rules after they take control of the chamber in January, moving beyond President Barack Obama's signature climate regulations to also target ozone air pollution and Clean Water Act rules.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), in a Nov. 6 interview with the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, said he felt a “deep responsibility” to stop the EPA's carbon pollution limits for new and existing power plants and that his top priority as majority leader would be to “try to do whatever I can to get the EPA reined in.”

Another member of Senate Republican leadership, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), will use standalone legislation and the appropriations process to go after the EPA's potential revisions to the national ozone standard, spokesman Ryan Wrasse told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 7.

Both Republican leaders said the EPA regulations are overly burdensome, would raise energy prices and go against the will of Congress.

“It makes me very angry, and I'm going to do everything I can to try to stop them,” McConnell said. “I view it as a complete outrage that [Obama] could not get cap and trade through the Congress when he owned the place—owned the place—and decided to do it anyway.”

McConnell plans to use the appropriations process to attach policy riders targeting the EPA regulations, calling the spending process his “best tool” for reining in the agency in a Nov. 5 press conference.

The Kentucky Republican, re-elected Nov. 4 to a sixth term, acknowledged that President Barack Obama nevertheless could veto the legislation if it includes unacceptable policy riders.

The White House didn't respond to a request for comment on McConnell's plans.

Senate Democrats Had Held Line

In the House, which has been under Republican control for four years, environmental regulations have come under repeated attacks but generally were unscathed due to resistance from Senate Democrats.

For example, House Republicans held 28 floor votes in 2013 to roll back environmental and public health regulations, according to the League of Conservation Voters 2013 National Environmental Scorecard, released in February.

By contrast, the Democratic-controlled Senate voted 13 times in 2013 on environmental protections and quashed virtually every attack on environmental rules, including amendments to ease power plants' compliance with EPA limits on mercury and air toxics and to bar Congress from ever enacting legislation to impose a carbon tax.

Thune Will Lend Support

Wrasse, Thune's spokesman, said the South Dakota Republican would “lend his full support” to other Republican efforts to halt the EPA carbon pollution standards and jurisdictional Clean Water Act rule but would prioritize congressional action on the national ambient air quality standard for ozone.

The EPA is considering whether to tighten the current ozone standard of 75 parts per billion and must issue a proposed decision by Dec. 1. Many areas of the U.S. would be unable to meet a more stringent standard, which could lead to new emissions control requirements for power plants, refineries, industrial facilities and other pollution sources in those areas.

In September, Thune led Senate Republicans in introducing legislation (S. 2833) that effectively would block the EPA from revising the ozone standard until 85 percent of the counties that are not meeting the current standard of 75 ppb are in compliance.

“Senator Thune is focused on reining in the Obama EPA's overreaches and the devastating impact they have on American jobs and energy prices,” Wrasse said. “The Obama EPA's assault on affordable energy must be stopped.”

Support Within Congress

Other senior congressional Republicans voiced strong support for McConnell's comments Nov. 7 and said they would feature reining in EPA regulations prominently in their agendas for the 114th Congress.

Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee, said Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) would support McConnell's efforts to attach coal-related riders to appropriations legislation. Rogers sought the inclusion of a coal-related appropriations rider in a fiscal year 2014 appropriations package.

Maintaining strong oversight of the EPA regulations also will continue to be a focus of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which outlined priorities that closely resemble those of McConnell.

“Keeping energy affordable and accessible will continue to be our focus next Congress, and our fight to protect Americans against the harmful consequences of EPA's regulations will continue to be an important part of the committee's energy agenda,” a committee aide told Bloomberg BNA.

Concern From Environmental Groups

Advocates say attacks on environmental regulations go against the will of the American people, and they remain confident that there is a firewall of senators and representatives to fight against the inclusion of anti-environmental riders in the appropriations process.

“Where it is most challenging to fight back against these attacks on clean air and clean water is through the funding process,” Melinda Pierce, deputy director national campaigns at the Sierra Club, told Bloomberg BNA. “I fully expect [McConnell] will use these funding bills to advance attacks on EPA.”

Pierce said advocates will have to “up our game” to fight back against the riders and promised strong post-vote accountability for those in Congress who vote against environmental priorities. She also pointed to a number of Republicans senators facing competitive re-election contests in 2016—Sens. Mark Kirk (Ill.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Pat Toomey (Pa.) and Ron Johnson (Wis.) as examples—who may not want to repeatedly cast anti-environmental votes.

Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs with the League of Conservation Voters, echoed the views of several environmental advocacy groups that Obama would protect environmental regulations from congressional attacks because they are a “top priority” within his administration. Sittenfeld also called McConnell's prioritization of regulatory rollbacks “absurd.”

“It's kind of absurd [McConnell] is making that his top priority given all the challenges this country is facing,” Sittenfeld told Bloomberg BNA. “We will continue fighting every day to defend the EPA's ability to protect public health under the Clean Air Act.”

Industry Welcomes Commitment

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, whose members include American Electric Power Co. and Arch Coal Inc., welcomed the commitment from McConnell to roll back the EPA power plant standards.

“We appreciate Senator McConnell's focus on stopping EPA's politically driven carbon regulations from taking effect,” the group told Bloomberg BNA in a statement. “We stand ready to work with Sen. McConnell and like-minded elected officials in our shared quest to put Americans' priorities ahead of those of the EPA's.”

With assistance from Dean Scott

To contact the reporter on this story: Anthony Adragna in Washington at aadragna@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com