A contentious Republican bill that would have stripped the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases failed today in the Senate, but it exposed the divisiveness among Democrats on the issue and could disrupt the prospects of comprehensive energy and climate change legislation.
With the Gulf of Mexico oil gusher as a backdrop, Senate Republicans spent today arguing for a bill by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, designed to overturn an EPA finding last year on the dangers of greenhouse gases, which in turn gave the agency the authority to regulate those pollutants.
The legislation would also have affected the Obama administration's standards for the auto industry, which were based on the EPA's findings.
The bill, supported unanimously by Republicans, was doomed from the start -- the White House threatened to veto it and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, was unlikely to bring it up for a vote in the House -- but it exposed the differences among Democrats on the issue of climate change legislation.
Proponents were hoping an energy and environment bill would gain steam after the oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, but the prospects still look dim, experts say.
"To a certain extent, the vote on the Murkowski resolution is something of a preliminary test of how a climate bill will fare in the Senate, but the message is murky," said Michael B. Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School. "Fewer the senators who vote for the Murkowski resolution, the better the prospects for climate legislation."
Murkowski and her allies today argued that letting the EPA control emissions would create a new energy tax and kill jobs, and that it's Congress' job, not regulators', to set the levels. Opponents argued that EPA actions will actually help create jobs, and that the bill ultimately denies greenhouse gases do harm.
"A vote for the Murkowski resolution of disapproval is a vote to deny climate science by overturning EPA's science-based finding that global warming pollution is dangerous to Americans' health and to their environment," Dan Lashof, director of climate change for the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote earlier today.
Political theater played out in the Senate as opponents tried to tie the bill to the Gulf coast disaster.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, came to the Senate floor this morning armed with props -- blown-up pictures of oil-soaked birds in the Gulf of Mexico. She said that while the images are difficult to look at, they are a direct consequence of the United States' addiction to carbon-emitting fuels.
"For someone to come to this floor and say carbon -- too much carbon is not dangerous, then I'm sorry, we're going to have to look at these pictures, even though we don't want to," said Boxer, who chairs the Senate Environment Committee.
She ended up sparring, as she often does, with Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the environment committee, who said, "global warming is the greatest hoax perpetrated on the American people."
"She spent three-fourths of her time talking about the oil spill. Let me say, Madam president, there's no relationship between this [EPA disapproval resolution] and the oil spill," Inhofe said.
Senators Spar Over EPA Mandate
While the prospects of comprehensive energy legislation remain murky, most Americans do think there should be regulation to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
In an ABC News/Washington Post poll released today, 71 percent of Americans said they support such regulation, up 6 points from December. Fifty-two percent said they "strongly" support greenhouse gas regulations, considerably higher than the 19 percent who strongly oppose them.
The perception that global warming is occurring has declined, but it still remains powerful. In a November ABC News/Washington Post poll, 72 percent said they think the Earth has been warming, down from a peak of 85 percent in 2006.
There have been a number of attempts in Congress in recent years to pass legislation to cut carbon emissions. The House passed a bill late last year that would have capped how much carbon businesses can emit and allowed them to trade for emissions beyond that ceiling.
Some experts said that while Congress has the authority to mandate greenhouse gases, they have not clarified when and how they will regulate such gases, which is important to avoid an environmental catastrophe.
"It makes no sense to say that EPA is usurping Congressional power when Congress hasn't used this power," Gerrard said. "I think EPA would rather have a clear Congressional mandate and a target to try to achieve" rather than trying to set the objective itself.
EPA administrator Lisa Jackson called Sen. Murkowski's bill "a step backward," arguing Monday that it would increase U.S. dependence on oil by 455 million barrels.
"This resolution would take us back to the old energy policies by allowing the polluters to simply pay modest penalties to avoid full compliance with the standards," Jackson wrote in the Huffington Post.
A number of Democrats, particularly those like Sen. John Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, who hail from coal producing states, sided with Republicans.
Climate change legislation remains in limbo in the Senate, even though calls for passing comprehensive legislation have grown louder since the BP oil disaster. But with several different proposals on the table, Democrats are divided over how to proceed.
The most comprehensive climate change legislation, proposed by Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Connecticut, included some incentives for offshore oil drilling to attract Republican support. But in the wake of the environmental crisis on the Gulf coast, those will likely have to be reassessed. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, has backed off on energy legislation and is advocating against it even though he was one of the original sponsors of the bill.
"Increasingly, it's looking like some other energy bill, or in the form of incentives and subsidies for efficiency and clean energy will likely go forward," said congressional scholar Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "I just think the politics don't support it. It's hard to believe that in a time of continued economic distress, you can pull it off, even if in substantive terms it makes good sense."
The most recent proposal was a 112-page bill released Wednesday by Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Indiana. The bill calls for more fuel efficiency programs and energy efficiency but doesn't include any specifics on carbon caps and regulating greenhouse gases.
Republican leaders are swinging back at Democrats for using the Gulf coast oil spill as a way to push energy and environment legislation.
"We're perfectly happy to work with the administration on legislation that might be appropriate, directly related to the spill in the Gulf," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said today. "What I believe most of my members, if not all of them, and a substantial number of Democrats in the United States Senate will not be interested in is seizing on the oil spill in the Gulf and using that as a rationale, if you will, for passing a national energy tax."