EPA Administrator Says Coal Rules Necessary Because of 'Devastating Impacts on the Planet'

WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans attacked the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) plan to cut pollution for coal-fired power plants last week, challenging the validity of the research on climate change and the viability of a technology aimed at cleaning carbon emissions.

Four of the federal government’s top climate change officials appeared before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to try to build momentum for the president’s climate change strategy.

President Obama unveiled in June his climate action plan following the collapse of a cap-and-trade bill in the Senate. The plan includes a slew of new policies to curtail U.S. carbon emissions and promote renewable energy.

The president’s climate plan directs the EPA to propose rules to cut carbon pollution from power plants.

At the hearing, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told lawmakers power plants are the single largest source of carbon pollution in the U.S.

If left unaddressed, climate change could “have devastating impacts on the United States and the planet,” she said.

Democrats and Republicans on the committee exchanged divisive rhetoric on the issue.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said the evidence of climate change is already being witnessed in more acidic oceans and rising seas.

“Our sea levels are rising,” he said. “It’s not complicated. You measure that with a yardstick.”

Whitehouse urged the witnesses to keep up the good work and “armor” themselves against the attacks from those who deny climate change.

“My belief is that the propaganda machine behind the climate denial effort will go down in history as one of our great American scandals,” Whitehouse said. “Most Americans see through it.”

Committee Chair Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said Americans already think climate change is a serious problem, citing a USA Today poll that shows popular support for government action on climate and clean energy solutions, such as solar and wind power.

“And here's the thing about the American people. They all say this, not just Democrats, not just Republicans, not just independents. The only place that we have a partisan divide is right here in the Congress,” Boxer said.

Whitehouse and Boxer announced last Tuesday the creation of a Senate task force that aims to attack climate change denial and enlist support from companies outside of the fossil fuel industry.

Republicans on the panel questioned McCarthy about the validity of current climate change research. Some also raised concern about the impact on businesses and the coal industry.

Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) said he would not undertake a series of risky procedures to treat a problem that “we do not actually understand.”

Sen. David Vitter (La.), the committee’s ranking Republican, said the president’s climate action plan is based on “deeply flawed legal justifications and perceived theoretical benefits.”

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) accused the EPA of working “to wipe out coal and eventually natural gas.”

“It is clear that this EPA and this administration has an agenda, and that agenda is hurting jobs (and) raising energy costs,” he said. “This EPA is on the wrong side of the war on poverty.”

McCarthy defended the proposed rules to limit carbon emissions. She said her agency is under a Supreme Court ruling to regulate emissions as mandated by the Clean Air Act, which requires the agency to regulate carbon dioxide if it poses a threat to public health and welfare.

The Obama administration has spent billions of dollars in clean coal technologies, including carbon capture and sequestration systems (CCS) that are purported to clean up coal-fired power.

Republicans argued that the technology is not commercially ready and that a technology cannot be deemed ready if it receives federal funding to be operational.

Barrasso cited recent media reports that quoted a White House official saying that CCS technology has not been “adequately demonstrated” because the EPA’s assertion of technical feasibility of carbon capture relies heavily on pilot projects and literature reviews.

McCarthy said that CCS has been proven to be “technically feasible” in the data provided by the agency. The EPA said new plants could meet stricter emissions limits because CCS has been demonstrated to work and is the best technology available to plants.

EPA published the first set rules on new performance standards for power plants this month. The rules only apply to future plants and could go into force in 2015.

“For existing plants, we are engaged in outreach to a broad group of stakeholders who can inform the development of proposed guidelines, which we expect to issue in June of this year,” McCarthy said.

The existing plant carbon rule would give states the primary role in developing and implementing plans to address carbon pollution, she added.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) asked McCarthy whether she could confirm global temperatures were increasing faster in the last five or ten years than climate scientists had predicted, a claim made by Obama on several occasions.

McCarthy replied she could not answer the question because she only relays the information that scientists provide to her. 

“I just look at what the climate scientists tell me,” she said. “I don’t dissect that information in ways that would impress you, but certainly I’m not qualified.”

Sessions, however, was not persuaded by her answer.

“You are asking us to impose billions of dollars of cost on this economy and you won’t answer the simple question of whether [temperature around the globe is increasing faster than predicted] is an accurate statement or not?” Sessions retorted.

Barrasso grilled McCarthy about internal emails that appear to show top EPA officials using agency events to help environmental groups gather signatures for petitions on agency rulemaking.

One of the emails showed that an EPA top official held a meeting with these groups with the sole purpose to recruit additional comment signers.

McCarthy denied knowledge of the events and said she had not seen the email in question.

“It is very common practice for EPA to meet with a variety of stakeholders,” she said.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor Thursday that he, along with 40 other Republicans, will file an obscure measure, known as a "resolution of disapproval,” to block the forthcoming EPA regulations.