GOPs Charge Environmental Lobby Getting 'Unprecedented Access' to EPA Officials

WASHINGTON – Republicans in both the House and Senate are opening inquiries into what they maintain is the improper influence the Natural Resources Defense Council has on the Environmental Protection Agency policies.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, maintain the NRDC played a dominant role in developing proposed regulations that will limit carbon emissions from existing coal-fired power plants.

Issa and Vitter are seeking documents to determine the extent of the NRDC’s influence and whether the New York-based environmental group and the agency engaged in inappropriate collusion.

In a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, Issa and the Republicans on the Senate panel asserted that the NRDC had “unprecedented access to high-level EPA officials,” which “allowed it to influence EPA policy decisions and achieve its own private agenda.”

“Such collusive activities provide the NRDC, and their financial backers, with an inappropriate opportunity to wield the broad powers of the executive branch,” the letter said. “The fact that an ideological and partisan group drafted a rule that places a tremendous cost on everyday Americans through increased electricity prices is harmful and outrageous.”

The collusion “must cease immediately,” the lawmakers said.

Ed Chen, federal communications director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, dismissed the inquiry, saying it comes from climate change deniers who are uninterested in addressing the issue.

“Sen. Vitter, Rep. Issa and their colleagues are acting as if fighting for public health were an un-American activity,” Chen said. “Democratic and Republican presidents dating back to Dwight Eisenhower have worked to curb pollution and protect our natural resources. It is tragic that in 2014, Sen. Vitter and his colleagues fail to understand that Americans want the air they breathe and the water they drink to be clean.”

Congressional Republicans have been engaged in a running battle with the EPA for years over the agency’s efforts to battle global climate change by regulating emissions. The NRDC has been pegged as perhaps the primary lobbying group involved in fighting for tighter restrictions.

The scuffling culminated in June when the EPA, for the first time, introduced regulations seeking to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants in an effort to address climate change and concerns about the nation’s health. The proposed new rules create a national framework to set state-specific goals to cut carbon pollution per megawatt hour of electricity generated and authorizes the states to determine how to best meet those goals.

Coal-fired power plants are the largest carbon producers in the U.S., accounting for about one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions. The proposed rules followed on the heels of even tighter regulations issued regarding emissions from power plants that are not yet on line.

Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee staged their initial public attack on the Natural Resources Defense Council during a hearing on July 23 when Vitter asserted that the proposed carbon emissions rule was “fundamentally similar” to proposals issued by the NRDC.

“EPA’s proposed rule will increase costs to families, schools, hospitals, and businesses, and will, as always, hit the poor, the elderly, and those on fixed incomes the hardest,” Vitter said. “In reality, it is essentially a federal takeover of the American electricity system.  I, for one, am not comfortable with this EPA takeover, and neither are the people of Louisiana.”

Vitter was joined by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who hails from the nation’s largest coal-producing state. Barrasso cited a July 6 article in the New York Times that maintained three NRDC officials, described as “Washington’s best-paid lobbyists,” had a hand in developing the core of EPA’s plan.

“Now, for those outside the Beltway, the NRDC is a $120 million a year lobbying machine backed by Hollywood elites,” Barrasso said. “It is absolutely shameful to me that the EPA under the direction here of the administrator, will allow this powerful group of lawyers and lobbyists to draft their regulations – but yet this same administrator refuses to actually listen to the people whose lives and jobs will be severely impacted by these regulations drawn up by wealthy lawyers and lobbyists.”

“If I am wrong, then the NRDC and the EPA and its administrator can provide and should provide all records and documents that are requested by members of this committee and my House colleagues on how these new regulations for coal fired plants were crafted, because right now it sure looks like the EPA let a trio of high powered Washington lobbyists write their regulations for them,” Barrasso said.

McCarthy rejected those claims, crediting the EPA staff with formulating the agency’s response to global climate change.

“You crafted a proposal that ensures states and utilities have the flexibility they need to reduce carbon pollution in a practical and affordable way,” McCarthy wrote in her memo to her staff. “You gave up evenings, weekends and time with your families to make sure we got this right, and you have the empty takeout boxes and coffee cups to prove it.”

The proposed EPA regulation is structurally similar to the proposal put forward by the NRDC. But while the agency decided to cut 30 percent of power plant carbon emissions by 2030, the agency ultimately decided to cut only 30 percent of the power sector’s emissions by 2030 – a less aggressive approach than the one sought by NRDC, which wanted cuts reaching 42 percent.

On Wednesday, Vitter released several documents that he said establishes "the EPA is clearly allowing the NRDC to assist in drafting federal regulation, with a heavy hand in numerous economically destructive policies.”

The documents include an email from Dan Lashof of the NRDC and McCarthy accepting an invitation to a meeting about standards for power plants. None of the documents, however, establish any link between NRDC and the EPA regarding heavy influence on policy.