Will the Senate Castrate the Clean Air Act Next Week?

After the failure of the Copenhagen global warming talks, attention has returned to the Senate, where cap-and-trade legislation is languishing. For months, many proponents argued that we needed to pass legislation -- no matter how compromised -- to produce momentum for the Copenhagen talks. Since scientific consequences hold no votes in the Senate, about the only thing pressuring the Senate to act is that the Environmental Protection Agency has finally started to engage after ignoring the matter under Clinton and being suppressed under Bush. Even the possibility of EPA action has mobilized the dirtiest lobbyists of K Street.

Perversely, the first post-Copenhagen vote to be held by the Senate on global warming will not be to advance protection efforts but to shut them down. Majority Leader Harry Reid has allowed the polluting industries, represented by Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, to advance a vote on whether to block the EPA from taking any steps to enforce its recent ruling that global warming gases endanger public health. Murkowski may propose either a one-year block or something more permanent, depending on her assessment of the vote count this year and after the November elections.

The politics of the vote will be filled with ironies. The Obama administration, most mainstream environmental groups, and most Congressional environmental leaders, have all repeatedly said that they prefer that Congress pass legislation rather than EPA issue rules because that would be better to engage all the "stakeholders". By this measure, enforcing the Clean Air Act has always been seen as a bad alternative, even though the Act and only the Act is written to prevent the kind of grotesque special interest bailouts contained in many pieces of legislation, such as over $60 billion of subsidies to the coal companies contained in the House's global warming legislation.

The Clean Air Act requires the EPA, once it finds that a pollutant endangers public health, to eventually issue rules that mandate the best available technology to reduce global warming gases - perhaps nothing could strike more fear into the hearts of coal or utility executives than that! No billion dollar subsidies, no little known side provisions designed to protect particular plants with powerful Congressional patrons. And, not surprisingly, the Washington Post revealed the central role of utility lobbyists - former Bush Administration EPA officials - in writing possible amendments.

No wonder Sen. Murkowski wants to hamstring the Clean Air Act.

Nobody should have the slightest illusion that the House will defend the Clean Air Act if Murkowski is successful. After all, the House already passed legislation that exempts almost all industries from having their greenhouse gas emissions regulated under the Clean Air Act if global warming legislation passes. This provision - inserted without any public debate by coal industry friend Rep. Boucher, D. Virginia, never received an up or down vote in any committee or the full House, and was not opposed by many mainstream environmental groups.

The Senate is highly unlikely to pass any global warming legislation this year. If it does, the nature of the Senate is such that any bill that could pass would have to expand the use of coal, nuclear energy and off shore oil and gas drilling.

Any senator who wishes to maintain the slightest modicum of environmental credibility should vote against Sen. Murkowski's cynical attempt to shut down the only serious law that might actually force progress on industry's global warming pollution. This should be all hands on deck for the environmental movement and the Obama Administration.