Policy: Environment & Energy

Parties push opposing energy, climate paths as elections near

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Climate Change,2014 Elections,Campaigns,PennAve,Energy and Environment,Coal,Global Warming,Zack Colman,Air Pollution

Democrats and Republicans in both chambers will lay the groundwork Tuesday for 2014 election messaging on energy and climate issues at a pair of events in the House and the Senate.

In the House, the Energy and Commerce Energy and Power Subcommittee will put proposed Environmental Protection Agency rules on greenhouse gas emissions on trial when the GOP-led panel marks up a bill that would handcuff those regulations.

Meanwhile in the Senate, a handful of Democrats are ramping up the efforts of the Climate Action Task Force, an informal group that will focus on passing smaller climate measures and providing encouragement for the Obama administration to push ahead with more aggressive regulations.

The dichotomy points to the divide between the parties on what they consider to be the winning energy strategy in 2014.

Republicans see the rule on new power plants, along with a forthcoming one on existing facilities, as fitting into a broader narrative of regulatory overreach.

"If Democrats are of the belief that bankrupting coal and pushing heavy-handed regulation, that they think that's going to win them the middle, I say let them try," Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., a member of the Energy and Power panel, told the Washington Examiner.

Conservatives, some centrist Democrats from coal-dependent states and the industry argue that the EPA rules will raise the price of energy and make U.S. companies noncompetitive. They contend the rule for new power plants would effectively ban construction of coal-fired generation because the carbon capture and sequestration technology -- which traps emissions and pumps them underground -- that it requires is too expensive to install at industrial scale.

Republicans argue the rule for new power plants violates the Energy Policy Act of 2005 by basing the rule on facilities that have received federal subsidies. The bill in front of the Energy and Power Subcommittee on Tuesday would require the EPA to base its greenhouse gas rules for new plants on technology that has been in operation for one year and has not received federal subsidies.

Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., chairman of the subcommittee and sponsor of the legislation, said he understands that low natural gas prices have put plans to build coal-fired power plants on the back burner -- many generating units have shuttered because of utilities switching to cheaper natural gas and worry about the prospects of stricter regulations. But Whitfield said the Obama administration shouldn't effectively block the ability to do so in case natural gas prices rise in the future, he said.

"This president has really extreme views on the use of coal," he told the Washington Examiner, adding that he expects the full committee to pass his bill by the end of the month.

Whitfield said he wants his legislation, which Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is sponsoring in the Senate, to be the first leg of a debate on the EPA regulations that he said have been foisted on the public. He said most Americans haven't paid close attention to the EPA issue -- though some conservative groups, such as the American Energy Alliance, are already wading into races to slam Democrats on it -- and that his committee would do whatever it could to raise the profile.

"More and more people are becoming aware of it. We would be derelict in our responsibilities if we did not do our best to overturn this regulation," he said.

But Democrats are counting on more people paying attention to climate change.

Despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity — chiefly from burning fossil fuels — contributes to greenhouse gas emissions that warm the planet, Whitfield said the issue contains "many unanswered questions."

Whitfield's sentiment is one shared by many Republicans, and Democrats are looking to portray those lawmakers as out of touch with the scientific data.

That will first come in the form of the Climate Action Task Force, whose growing membership includes Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. The group will detail its plans for the year at a Tuesday news conference.

It has the backing of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has agreed to give its members time to speak about climate change at weekly Democratic caucus lunches held every Tuesday, an Environment and Public Works aide told the Washington Examiner.

"The purpose is to use the bully pulpit of our Senate offices to achieve that wakeup call," Boxer told reporters last week, according to Reuters. "We believe that climate change is a catastrophe that's unfolding before our eyes and we want Congress to take off the blindfolds."

The odds of passing climate legislation, even in the Democratic-controlled Senate, are long. A handful of centrist Democrats — some of whom are up for reelection in 2014 — are unlikely to back such proposals.

Still, the discourse on climate change has elevated on the national stage since Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast just before the 2012 election, putting the issue in the spotlight during a presidential contest in which green groups struggled in vain to get the topic in front of President Obama and GOP candidate Mitt Romney.

Building on that, Obama in June announced a sweeping agenda on climate in which he promised more aggressive regulations, expanded renewable energy generation on federal land and stricter energy-efficiency rules, among other measures.

One of the Climate Action Task Force's goals will be to provide cover for those efforts, which have faced strong criticism from Republicans and industry groups. On Thursday, Boxer's Senate committee will hold a hearing titled "Review of the President's Climate Action Plan," at which EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy will testify.

Democrats will get help from outside environmental groups, which are amassing war chests. The League of Conservation Voters, a green group that spent nearly $14 million in House and Senate races in 2012, plans to be active again this year. And Tom Steyer, the billionaire hedge fund manager and prominent Keystone XL oil sands pipeline foe, said his NextGen Climate Action PAC will look to oust climate-change skeptics.

"Yes, there's gridlock in Washington. But step outside the Beltway, and you hear the real conversation on climate change. In 2014, we're resolving to take that conversation to the next level and bring climate change to the forefront of America's political dialogue," Steyer wrote this month in a blog post for the Huffington Post.

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