Senate

Extreme Weather and Resilience: An Ounce of Prevention

A recent Senate hearing highlighted some of the progress U.S. communities are making, and the major challenges they face, in better coping with costly extreme weather events — including those, such as heat waves and coastal flooding, whose risks are heightened by climate change.

Sen. Tom Carper, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, noted that the “frequency and intensity of these extreme weather events are costing our country a lot - not just in lives impacted – but in economic costs, as well.” Nearly 130 weather-related events in 2013 caused more than $20 billion in losses in the United States.

Extreme weather is costly, not only to federal, state, and local governments, but also to businesses and individuals.

Much of the Senate testimony echoed key findings in our report, “Weathering the Storm, Building Business Resilience to Climate Change.”  Three key points made at the hearing were:

Agreeing on the problem, if not the solution

Despite the very different views of the majority and minority parties in the Senate, there was in fact a fair degree of agreement among the witnesses at today’s hearing on climate science and local adaptation.

During the climate science portion of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, both the majority and minority witnesses agreed that the Earth has warmed over the past 120 years. With the recent publication of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project by former skeptic Richard Muller, there are now four (NOAA, NASA and Hadley are the others) major global temperature records that are in agreement that the Earth has warmed 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 50 years.

Senate gets back to climate science

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing tomorrow called “Update on the Latest Climate Change Science and Local Adaptation Measures.” This is the first Senate hearing focused directly on climate science in the 112th Congress, and we hope it won’t be the last. Climate change is happening, the news from peer-reviewed science is increasingly daunting, and the public needs to hear what credible scientists are learning about the risks and potential solutions.

Time to Face the Facts on EPA Regulation

A witty observer of the human condition Mark Twain wrote, “Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.” He likely would have had a few choice quips about opponents of greenhouse gas (GHG) regulation who have a lot to put up with these days. They continue claiming that new regulations are a de facto construction moratorium, a burden on the economy, the illegal act of unelected bureaucrats, and doomed to be overturned by Congress. Yet the facts themselves provide overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
 

Before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began regulating GHGs this January, there were claims that these regulations would shut down entire industries and create a construction moratorium on new projects. In reality, the New Source Review program requires new sources of pollution and major modifications to existing sources of pollution, like power plants, refineries, and factories, to install the best available control technology to reduce GHG emissions. EPA’s guidelines for implementing these requirements focused mainly at increasing energy efficiency of facilities without requiring expensive add-on controls or fuel switching.
 

Despite these dire warnings, there are plenty of examples of how this scenario did not occur. Even before the regulations were in place, Calpine voluntarily and successfully underwent a determination of the best available control technology for its new natural gas power plant in the Bay Area. In a more recent example, one of the most vociferous industrial opponents of the regulations, Nucor Steel, came to Congress to testify at a hearing about the impossibility of compliance with the regulations, but the company had by that point already received a permit under that program for a facility in Louisiana. More permits have also been issued, and others are on the way.
 

Other attacks have fixated on the legality of the new regulations. Yet, in the 2007 case Massachusetts v. EPA, the Supreme Court ruled explicitly that EPA had the authority to regulate GHGs under the Clean Air Act if the Agency determined that they posed a significant threat to public health and welfare. This threat was overwhelmingly demonstrated in the 2009 endangerment finding, which documented the risks of climate change posed by GHGs. This endangerment finding was issued by the Obama Administration, but the Bush Administration had come to exactly the same conclusions. A Supreme Court ruling in favor of regulation is a hard example to be confronted with, but that hasn’t stopped opponents.
 

Although there has been little problem with implementation of these new requirements, it has taken the political rhetoric some time to catch up with the facts. Some on Capitol Hill have remained fixated on these regulations. This debate came to a head, as votes were taken to repeal or delay the EPA regulations. In the Senate, votes on four different permutations failed to meet the required 60-vote majority. The Baucus Amendment would have codified EPA’s tailoring rule and exempted agricultural sources from EPA GHG regulations. It failed 7-93. The Stabenow Amendment would have allowed EPA to continue work on drafting regulations, but it would have delayed implementation of existing GHG rules (except for the existing transportation standards) for two years, excluded the agriculture sector, and expanded some manufacturing tax credits. It also failed 7-93. The Rockefeller Amendment would have delayed the implementation of all EPA GHG regulations (except for car rules) by two years. It failed 12-88. The McConnell Amendment was a version of the Whitfield-Upton-Inhofe proposal that would have explicitly prohibited any GHG regulation using Clean Air Act authorities and repealed the EPA’s scientific finding about the dangers of climate change. The preferred bill of the Minority, it failed 50-50. In the House, a standalone bill (The Energy Tax Prevention Act) mirroring the McConnell amendment passed by a substantial, largely partisan majority, but with the failure of all four proposals in the Senate, it was clear that there was no hook to conduct a House-Senate conference on the legislation. For those who wanted a Congressional rebuke for action on climate, these votes should have served as an example of political opposition to repeal of regulatory authority.
 

In the face of those votes, opponents tried one more political maneuver: holding the federal budget hostage to the inclusion of the failed McConnell Amendment. After threatening a shutdown of the federal government to oppose regulations that have been shown not to prevent new facilities from being permitted, not to lead to economic destruction, and which were upheld by the Senate just days earlier, opponents eventually relented and withdrew their demands.
 

It has been tough to put up with these examples, but some opponents of the regulations are finally accepting the results. “I think this is probably the end of our EPA little session here,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV). “I’m not going to be pushing for another vote,” echoed Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI). After everything that has occurred on this matter, and regardless of other attempts that might be made, it’s clear that the existing regulations are here to stay and the path forward for future reasonable regulations has strong economic, legal, and political foundations. In the coming months, EPA will turn to the next step in its legally-required regulatory process, proposing New Source Performance Standards for the utility and refining sectors.
 

Our leaders should use their energies to ensure that these regulations result in low-cost emissions reductions rather than continuing to fight battles for which the outcomes are already known. There is a real possibility for positive engagement in this process but only if one is willing to take a rational look at the challenges and potential policy tools available. For those that want to continue to fight past battles in the face of all that has happened, another Twain quote comes to mind: “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”


Michael Tubman is the Congressional Affairs Fellow

Wanted: A Real Solution to an Urgent Problem

This post also appeared today in National Journal's Energy & Environment Experts blog in response to a question about Congressional action related to EPA's endangerment finding.

Let’s be absolutely clear here. Overturning EPA’s endangerment finding -- that greenhouse gases are a risk to public health and welfare – would send exactly the wrong signal about the serious nature of this issue. To take such an action, just days after our nation’s top scientific body (the National Academy of Sciences) issued a loud and clear call for action, should be unthinkable.

Some may vote for the resolution not intending to repudiate the science but to reserve the right of Congress (and not EPA) to set policies to restrict greenhouse gas emissions.  If this is their rationale, then a vote to delay EPA regulations for two years (along the lines of Sen. Rockefeller’s bill) might make more sense.

The Senate Approaches a Critical Crossroads

With the long-awaited release of the Kerry-Lieberman clean energy and climate bill (The American Power Act) and EPA’s final action on its “tailoring” rule, two important clues emerged this week to the unfolding mystery of whether or not we will have climate legislation this year.  And buckle up and enjoy the ride -- two more major developments are just around the corner. On Wednesday, the National Academy of Sciences will be releasing three of its panel reports on America’s Climate Choices and sometime in the next two weeks Senator Murkowski may bring forward for a vote her effort to overturn EPA’s endangerment finding.

The release of the K-L bill demonstrates both how far we have gone and how distant the goal remains.  The bill achieved support from some key elements of the business community and goes much further in adding in elements (nuclear power and a hard price collar) that could expand its base of support.  But the loss of Senator Graham as a co-sponsor and the absence of any bipartisan backing underscore the challenges it faces in achieving the 60 votes it will need to avoid a filibuster in the Senate.  The Senate clock also continues to wind down making it harder to find floor time to move a comprehensive bill forward.

EPA’s recently issued interpretation of when greenhouse gases become regulated pollutants and its final tailoring rule show EPA’s willingness to make reasonable use of  the existing Clean Air Act to tackle climate change. By delaying the effective date when new source review will apply to greenhouse gases, and limiting new source requirements for best available control technology to only the largest sources (estimated to impact approximately 900 additional major sources annually), the agency put to rest the fears of some that the Agency’s rules would sink the economy and harm small businesses.  The rule shows that the existing Act, though cumbersome, can be used as a tool to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Both EPA’s action and the upcoming National Academy panel reports provide the perfect preface to the expected vote in the Senate on overturning EPA’s endangerment finding which links greenhouse gas emissions to health and welfare impacts from climate change.   To argue for overturning the finding, some Senators will point to recent controversies: the errors in the IPCC report; the hacked e-mails referred to as “climategate;” and even the DC snowstorms of last winter as evidence that the science of climate change is somehow suspect.  Despite the media attention these have received, none in any way undercut the overwhelming case underlying concerns about climate change.  Three independent investigations have each cleared the scientists who authored the e-mails of charges that they manipulated data or infringed on the peer review process.  The IPCC has corrected the two mistakes (the expected date of the melting of Himalayan glaciers and the percent of land in the Netherlands under water) uncovered to date in its reports – out of a total of thousands of pages, two mistakes neither of which undercuts the IPCC’s key conclusion that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and “that most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations.”  Finally, notwithstanding Washington D.C.’s blustery winter, globally 2009 proved to be one of the warmest years on record.  The NAS panel reports this week are likely only to reinforce these conclusions, further calling into question any votes in support of overturning EPA’s endangerment finding based on denying what we know about climate science. 

Others in the Senate, including Senator Murkowski, make the case that the goal of overturning the endangerment finding is really about the need to take the worst option (EPA regulations) off the table and thereby protect our economy from the potentially dire consequences of EPA action particularly on small businesses. They argue that this would allow our elected representatives the opportunity and time to address this issue. But the limits EPA adopted in its tailoring rule (and its earlier decision to delay implementation) appear to take off the table these concerns about widespread and costly controls on small sources.  Although legal challenges to the tailoring rule are possible, they would take time to work their way through the courts, and if they were successful, Congress would then be in a far better position (and have a more compelling case) to provide a narrow legislative fix addressing a specific problem.   

When the debate on overturning EPA’s endangerment finding moves to the Senate floor (10 hours of debate is permitted), many will be wondering why the Senate isn’t instead focusing its debate on finding the common ground solutions urgently needed to get our nation on a path that enhances our energy independence, spurs the growth of new technologies, and slows climate change.

Steve Seidel is Vice President for Policy Analysis

Major Environmental Laws Come in Election Years – Climate is No Exception in 2010

When the Congress returns from Easter Recess next week, 116 days will remain on the legislative calendar before Election Day on November 9.  This relative dearth of time has led some proponents of climate action to worry whether there is enough political appetite for Congress to pass comprehensive climate and energy legislation while midterm elections loom.  Certainly, the November elections are on the minds of legislators.  However, elections have always factored into Congressional decision-making and action.  Government accountability through elections is what our Republic is founded on, after all.  Despite impending campaigns, nearly every major environmental law of the last 40 years has been passed during an election year.

In general, Congress has a history of making big policy decisions during election years.  USA Today recently found that over the last 20 years, Congresses have actually passed 70% more laws in election years than in other years.  What’s more is that these laws are not just limited to post office dedications and other less-than-essential topics.  Comprehensive legislation has often passed in election years, including the 1994 crime bill, 1996 welfare reform, 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform, and even the health care reform bill this year.

Turning specifically to environmental laws, 22 major laws (listed below), beginning with the National Environmental Policy Act signed in 1970, were enacted in election years.  For example, October 1986 – just weeks from Election Day – saw the passage of significant amendments to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund).

A clear precedent for climate change legislation passing in 2010 is the Clean Air Act amendments that passed in late 1990.  Just as President Obama campaigned on passing climate legislation, President George H.W. Bush campaigned to enact new air pollution laws.  Bush worked with a group of bipartisan legislators to have a revolutionary package of amendments introduced in the House by Rep. Dingell (D-MI) and in the Senate by Sen. Chafee (R-RI).  This package included a cap-and-trade program for power plant emissions of acid rain-causing NOx and SO2.  After the bipartisan bills easily passed both chambers by mid-year, the conference committee, led by Sen. Baucus (D-MT), agreed to a compromise bill that passed 401-25 in the House and 89-10 in the Senate.  Passage occurred by these wide, bipartisan margins on October 26 and 27 – not bad for two weeks before an election.

Comprehensive climate and energy legislation should be the next in the series of major environmental laws passed in a midterm election year.  Like the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, other environmental laws have required bipartisan compromise.  Democrats and Republicans have had to reach agreement on environmental policy before and they can do so again, even in an election year.  Making good public policy is the best politics, and a strong bipartisan effort on the serious challenge of climate change is something that both parties should be accountable for in November.

Environmental laws passed in election years since 1970 include:

  • National Environmental Policy Act (1970)
  • Clean Air Act Amendments (1970)
  • Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970)
  • Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972)
  • Coastal Zone Management Act (1972)
  • Clean Water Act (1972)
  • Safe Drinking Water Act (1974)
  • Fisheries Conservation and Management Act (1976)
  • Toxic Substances Control Act (1976)
  • Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976)
  • Federal Land Policy and Management Act (1976)
  • Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (1980)
  • Nuclear Waste Policy Act (1982)
  • Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (1986)
  • Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (1986)
  • Ocean Dumping Act (1988)
  • Shore Protection Act (1988)
  • Oil Pollution Act (1990)
  • Clean Air Act Amendments (1990)
  • Pollution Prevention Act (1990)
  • Food Quality Protection Act (1996)  
  • Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments (1996)

Environmental laws passed in non-election years include:

  • Endangered Species Act (1973)
  • Clean Air Act Amendments (1977)

Michael Tubman is the Congressional Affairs Fellow

So What Exactly Is a Disapproval Resolution?

This post also appears on the National Journal Energy & Environment Experts Blog.

With Thursday’s floor statement by Senator Murkowski (R-Alaska) announcing her joint resolution to override EPA’s endangerment finding, we were introduced to a new term to add to our lexicon – a disapproval resolution.  If like me, you only had a vague recollection that Congress had given itself the ability to override any new federal regulation, some quick research was in order.

The Meaning of Massachusetts

There is a great deal of speculation in the press and in the world of punditry about how the Massachusetts election will change the Obama administration’s agenda this year. For the climate issue there are clear implications, but no death knell. 

It is worth pointing out that this election represents only one vote in the Senate. But the real issue is how the moderate, swing senators will react, and whether they pull back on supporting climate action. This election does not change the fact that support from moderate senators in both parties is needed to pass a strong climate-energy bill.

While an economy-wide program to reduce emissions remains the ultimate objective, I believe there are many ways to get there. 

It’s critical that we find ways to promote low-carbon energy and reduce power sector emissions while accelerating the creation of clean energy jobs and promoting economic growth.  I continue to think we have a decent chance of getting meaningful legislation this year that reduces emissions and starts us on a path toward a clean energy future.

Eileen Claussen is President

Embracing a Cleaner Coal Future

The role of coal in the future U.S. energy mix is a key issue in the Senate debate over climate legislation. Another senator has recently drawn attention to the importance of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to coal. On December 3, Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) issued an opinion piece entitled “Coal Must Embrace the Future.”

West Virginia produces more coal than any state other than Wyoming and accounts for about 13.5 percent of total U.S. coal production. Coal-fueled power plants provide nearly 98 percent of West Virginia’s electricity. Coal mining accounts for about 6 percent of West Virginia’s state GDP and 3 percent of total state employment.

Senator Byrd’s opinion piece addresses issues related to mountaintop removal mining and climate change. Notably, on the question of climate change, Senator Byrd writes that:

To be part of any solution, one must first acknowledge a problem. To deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand and say “deal me out.” West Virginia would be much smarter to stay at the table. The 20 coal-producing states together hold some powerful political cards.

Disinterested analyses (e.g, from MIT and EPRI) project coal with CCS to be a significant component of a least-cost portfolio of low-carbon energy technologies.  Coal currently provides nearly half of all U.S. electricity. Senator Byrd’s opinion piece reinforces the distinct importance of preserving a significant role for coal in a future U.S. energy supply in order to secure broad political support (i.e., at least 60 votes in the Senate) for action on climate change.

Senator Byrd earlier stated that he did not support the climate and energy bill passed by the House in June (H.R. 2454, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009) “in its present form.” Our recent brief describes the significant investments the House energy and climate bill includes for demonstration and deployment of CCS with coal-fueled power plants. The senator does, however, highlight in his opinion piece that he has been working for the past six months with a group of coal state senators on provisions that could be included in a Senate climate and energy bill that would facilitate a transition to a low-carbon energy future for the coal industry.

In short, Senator Byrd’s opinion piece is a candid assessment of the situation as he sees it: the science supporting man-made climate change is clear; U.S. climate and energy legislation will pass eventually; cooperative, constructive engagement by coal state Senators in crafting such legislation is the best strategy for protecting the interests of their constituents.

Fittingly, one of the most advanced CCS projects in the world recently began operation in Senator Byrd’s home state—American Electric Power’s Mountaineer Plant Carbon Dioxide Capture & Storage Project.

Steve Caldwell is a Technology and Policy Fellow

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