Waiting for a Clash on Climate Change

Coral Davenport

In 2011, congressional Republicans put a bull’s-eye on the Environmental Protection Agency.

A powerful new political force—the tea party—was on the rise, fueled by opposition to taxes and government regulation. It crashed head-on into President Obama’s EPA, which was in the process of rolling out an ambitious slate of new clean-air regulations aimed at slashing toxic pollution from coal-powered plants and factories.

For the past two years, the House Energy and Commerce Committee has operated as the launchpad for legislative attacks on EPA’s rules, hauling in the agency’s former administrator, Lisa Jackson, for high-profile grillings and putting forth a series of bills aimed at handcuffing the agency’s ability to crack down on industrial pollution. Even though none of the legislation had a chance of passing all the way through Congress, the panel’s actions helped amplify the GOP political message that the administration was waging a “war on coal.” The anti-coal charges failed, however, to oust Obama or help Republicans gain control of the Senate.

Now, committee Republicans find themselves in the calm before the next storm. EPA is preparing to introduce what one advocate called “the mother of all clean-air regulations”—rules that will force new and existing coal-fired power plants to cut their emissions of the carbon dioxide that is the chief cause of global warming.

Once issued, the rules will likely freeze construction of coal plants in the U.S. and could lead to the closure of many existing plants. That’s certain to set off a GOP firestorm in Congress, and the committee may once again be the springboard for the onslaught against the rules.

Obama appears set to push through the regulations, despite the certain political pushback, because he seems intent on making climate-change policy part of his legacy. But it now appears unlikely that EPA will issue the rules until after the 2014 midterm elections. That leaves the committee in an awkward place: preparing to fight regulations it knows are coming, but lacking anything concrete to push back against before the elections.