Most Important Climate and Energy Vote of Year Tests Senate Direction

Late last year when Senator Lisa Murkowski announced she would vigorously oppose any effort to use the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon emissions, environmental leaders in Washington understood the significance of the Alaska Republican’s challenge. A loyal ally of fossil fuel developers, Senator Murkowski attracts more campaign financing from the oil and utility industries than all but two other Senate lawmakers, according to federal election records.

Murkowski resolution put to vote

The months-long skirnishing between Senator Murkowski and environmental advocates is now in its final hours, with both sides asserting they will prevail.

At stake is a vote in the Senate scheduled for Thursday night on a “resolution of disapproval” introduced by Senator Murkowski last January and meant to disrupt the Obama administration’s pioneering work to respond to climate change by limiting emissions of carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases in the U.S.

Though the Murkowski resolution faces an arduous route through a Democratic-controlled Congress and White House, the Thursday vote will be the most important Congressional test yet this year on where the United States is going on climate action and clean energy.

The details of what’s been happening look like this: Senator Murkowski’s resolution, which has 41 co-sponsors, would overturn the Environmental Protection Agency’s formal scientific finding on December 7, 2009 that carbon dioxide and five other climate-changing pollutants endanger human health and the environment.

The EPA’s “endangerment finding,” introduced at the start of the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen last year, was saluted by climate activists and government officials around the world. The finding made it legally possible to use the Clean Air Act, the nation’s primary air pollution statute, to set and enforce new manufacturing practices and emissions limits that tamed the U.S. contribution to global climate change.

Moment of Reckoning For Both Sides
The vote couldn’t come at a more opportune moment for climate advocates and the fossil fuel industry and should provide a helpful sorting out of the relative political influence of both sides.

The last six months have been a period of dismay for the American climate action community, challenged by the disappointing results in Copenhagen, and fighting back against the furious attack by pundits and lawmakers on the validity of climate science.

The last six weeks have been equally dismal for the oil industry, which has attracted new public scrutiny because of the horrendous oil spill in the Gulf, and the equally destructive environmental consequences of mining and processing oil from Alberta, Canada’s tar sands.

If the resolution passes, an event seen as unlikely by Democratic Senate staffers, it would almost certainly have the effect of putting an even deeper  trench in the already difficult path that comprehensive climate and energy legislation has in the Senate. Conversely, if the resolution fails by a wide margin, that result would likely build new legislative enthusiasm for a climate and energy bill this year.

Important players from both sides are making their cases. Americans United for Change today began three days of cable TV advertising  in Washington, D.C., that explicitly link the BP Gulf disaster to the Murkowski resolution and the assertion that at Republicans are “working to gut the bipartisan Clean Air Act and give big oil a bailout.”

Senator Murkowski issued a statement this week that accused critics of the resolution of misrepresenting her intentions. “There has been a great deal of misinformation spread about my effort by groups — almost all of which are based outside of Alaska — who want to cut the emissions blamed for climate change no matter what the cost,” Murkowski said.  Her spokesman, Robert Dillon, said the resolution is not about debating the science behind climate change. Rather, he told the Associated Press, it’s about stopping an “out of control” government agency.

Senator Murkowski’s conservative supporters contend that using the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon emissions is a regulatory overreach by big government. “Every sector of our economy — transportation, power generation and manufacturing — would be subjected to EPA’s bureaucratic reach,” said Tom Borelli director of the Free Enterprise Project at the National Center for Public Policy Research.


Endangerment Finding Put to Use
The Obama administration, meanwhile, has moved quickly to put the endangerment finding and its Clean Air Act authority into effect. In April the administration issued trend-setting fuel mileage and emissions standards for light vehicles that the agency said would save 1.8 billion barrels of oil and 900 million tons of carbon emissions from 2012 to 2016.

Last month, President Obama ordered similar mileage and emissions reduction rules for heavy trucks. The administration has also made plain its intention to use the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon emissions from some 7,000 industrial installations – refineries, utilities, manufacturers, and mining sites – but leave small businesses alone.

U.S. climate and clean energy organizations anticipated Senator Murkowski’s challenge and began building support in January to defeat the resolution, which they called the “Dirty Air Act.” Among the allies in the campaign were dozens of environmental organizations, labor unions, governors, President Obama, Democratic senators, and EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson.

Newspaper editorialists also weighed in, noting that the BP Gulf Spill has made it more urgent than ever to curtail the myriad hazards of America’s addiction to oil. “Murkowski plans to offer a resolution,” said the Washington Post on June 7, “making it less likely we move away from fossil fuels, making it less likely we act to prevent a foreseeable catastrophe (in this case, global warming) from occurring, blocking regulators from doing their jobs, and disrupting one of our best opportunities to prevent climate change rather than scramble to respond after its incalculable effects rip through our atmosphere.”

In an article on Monday for the Huffington Post, EPA Administrator Jackson said the Murkowski resolution “abdicates the responsibility we have to move the country forward in a way that creates jobs, increases our security by breaking our dependence on foreign oil, and protects the air and water we rely on.”

— Keith Schneider

While Oil Gushes Into Gulf, A Flurry of Ideas This Week in Washington

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The foreboding of the monstrous Gulf oil spill was accompanied this week by the opportune deeds of Washington lawmakers, policy makers, and activists hard at work to fashion a political response, including the Senate introduction of a comprehensive climate and energy bill. The new proposal was generally applauded for its expansive scope by business groups, labor, and environmental organizations, which also agreed that it needed some work.

But first came the White House, which started the week with a plan to break up the Minerals Management Service, a unit of the Interior Department charged with 1) holding federal bottomland lease auctions that have the effect of promoting the development of offshore drilling, 2) collecting roughly $13 billion annually in federal oil and gas royalties, and 3) regulating offshore oil and natural gas production practices.

Then came a series of investigative hearings on Capitol Hill, during which members of Congress and the public learned from senior executives of the three companies involved in the accident – BP, Transocean, and Haliburton – that technical breakdowns involving tools most Americans never heard of caused an environmental disaster that gets worse by the day. Those included such things as drilling mud applied at the wrong time, dead batteries, and disruption in the functioning of the blowout preventer. It also involved flaws in the sequencing of events to simultaneously manage the extreme pressure of the sea 5,000 feet deep, and oil bursting out of its geological reservoir at the rate of 14,000 pounds per square inch, which is roughly the same power as a big artillery shell fired down the barrel of a cannon.

A Big, Complex, Auspicious Bill
Against this backdrop, and with all of the political and media bunting that they could muster, New England Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman introduced the American Power Act. The big bill, 987 pages in its draft form, is intended to change the direction of some of the nation’s toughest systemic problems – economic competitiveness, energy security, job loss, and environmental safety. The proposal encompasses development of the full menu of conventional and alternative energy sources, calls for limits on carbon emissions, and the development of a carbon market to buy and sell allowances.

The bill also calls for contributing to a global climate action fund, starting in 2019, to help developing nations respond to climate change. That provision was viewed as too little and too late by Oxfam America and other climate action organizations. Indeed, many features of the bill – federal incentives to build 12 nuclear plants, support to the coal and electrical utility industry for carbon capture and sequestration projects, plans to withdraw some authority from the EPA to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act, steps to allow more offshore drilling – attracted similarly skeptical critiques that environmental organizations said they would work to fix.

Oil Ban, Clean Air Carbon Emissions Limits
As the week drew to a close, a flurry of other spill- and climate-related actions stirred Washington. West Coast Democratic Senators Maria Cantwell, Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, Jeff Merkley, Patty Murray, and Ron Wyden introduced legislation to permanently ban offshore drilling in all federal waters off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson issued new rules under the Clean Air Act that specified which big air polluters – power plants, refineries, large industrial plants – would be required to obtain operating permits based on their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

And environmental organizations stepped up their organizing to convince the Senate not to act on a resolution introduced in January by Alaska Republican Senator Linda Murkowski that would prevent the EPA from using the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon emissions.

While all of this occurred, one million more gallons of oil poured into the Gulf, according to federal estimates. The slick, which has already closed fishing grounds and begun to wash up on shorelines, expanded by thousands of square miles. Senator Murkowski, by the way, also blocked  a Democratic initiative on Thursday — The Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act — which proposed to raise the liability limits for oil companies from $75 million to $10 billion. The increase was designed to ensure that oil companies pay for the economic and environmental damage caused by big spills.
— Keith Schneider

Obama’s 3 Heaters, And A Wild Pitch

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The Obama administration threw heaters this week to influence climate and energy policy and practices. The first announcement — to end a long-standing moratorium on offshore oil drilling — was seen as a wild pitch.

The president said the Interior Department would open large swaths of the Atlantic, Gulf, and Alaskan coasts to oil and natural gas development. The drilling zone on the East Coast extends from Delaware to the central coast of Florida. The Arctic Ocean north of Alaska will also be opened. Many Republicans and environmentalists expressed their dismay.

Then, the EPA and the Department of Transportation teamed up to set new tailpipe emissions and fuel mileage standards to limit greenhouse gases and increase fuel economy for new vehicles. The limits on greenhouse gases, the first ever set by the government,  are expected to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases by about 30 percent between 2012 and 2016, and increase fuel efficiency to an average of 35.5 miles per gallon.

After Drilling and Driving Comes Mining
After that, the EPA proposed new water-quality standards for surface coal mining in Appalachia that Administrator Lisa Jackson said were intended to block the extravagantly wasteful mountaintop removal. The water regulations, which attempt to set the first numeric standards for salt in streams near surface coal mines, are meant to protect 95 percent of the region’s aquatic life and freshwater streams.

The proposed regulations were another clear action by the White House to limit the environmental consequences of a fossil fuel mining trend that has even outraged growing numbers of retired Appalachian coal miners.  “We expect this guideline to change behaviors, to change actions,” said Jackson. “Because if we keep doing what we have been doing, we’ll continue to see degradation of water quality.”

Green activists applauded the mining and tailpipe actions. But the White House proposal for offshore drilling prompted consistent rebuke from climate activists and Republican lawmakers, and a few questions. Jeremy Symons, the senior vice president of the National Wildlife Federation, correctly pointed out that “we cannot drill our way to energy independence. The bottom line is there simply is not enough oil available off of our coasts to satisfy America’s fossil fuel addiction.”

Other observers noted that the government has sought in recent years to lease offshore regions for oil and gas development in other areas and attracted scant interest from the oil industry. Why? One reason is that drilling in deep water is exorbitantly expensive. An offshore rig can cost $200 million to $1 billion, and sinking a single well can cost $100 million or more.

An Offshore Diversion?
President Obama anticipated the puzzlement, asserting the offshore plan was a bid for energy pragmatism. “We are going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy,” he said on Wednesday. Left out of the conversation, though, was a huge source of available petroleum that neither the White House, the Republicans, nor the oil industry wants to talk about.

That’s the Athabasca oil sands of northern Alberta, Canada. Petroleum engineers say there is enough oil embedded in the sands to fuel America for 300 years, based on current rates of consumption. The Obama administration has cleared the way for a new pipeline from Alberta to the Midwest. Hyperion Resources wants to build a $10 billion refinery amid the sunflower and wheat fields of South Dakota. The dust up over drilling on the Continental Shelf may well be a distraction, diverting attention from a much more substantive source of energy, oil industry wealth, and climate changing emissions.

— Keith Schneider