SCOTT BROWN'S ELECTION - ONE MORE SET-BACK FOR CLIMATE CHANGE LEGISLATION?

Posted on January 27, 2010 by Michael Hockley

When Scott Brown was elected to fill Senator Kennedy’s senate seat, news reports highlighted the impact on health care legislation and the loss of the filibuster-proof sixty vote Democratic majority in the Senate. In environmental circles, however, many commentators pointed out the potential impact on climate change legislation. 

 

Prior to his election, most believed that once Congress passed the health care bill, it would turn its full attention to climate change legislation and pass some form of legislation to limit green house gas (“GHG”) emissions. The loss of this key Democratic Senate seat makes the prospect of GHG legislation in the near future seem less likely, although some commentators take the contrarian view. They argue that if health care reform moves to the back burner, the chances of passing a climate bill would increase because Democrats need a major legislative victory to bolster the 2010 election efforts.

 

Following the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007) finding the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act (“CAA”), some form of mandatory GHG controls, either through legislation, regulation, or a combination of both, has seemed inevitable. In response to the Massachusetts decision, EPA and Congress have been moving on parallel tracks to regulate GHG emissions. 

 

EPA has issued a number of proposed and final rules, including a final mandatory GHG reporting rule, 74 Fed. Reg. 56260 (Oct. 30, 2009), an Endangerment and Cause or Contribute Finding that motor vehicle GHG emissions contribute to GHG pollution and threaten public health and welfare, 74 Fed. Reg. 66496 (De. 15, 2009), and a proposed “Prevention of Significant Deterioration and Title 5 Greenhouse Gas Tailoring Rule,” 74 Fed. Reg. 55292 (Oct. 27, 2009), among others. EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also announced a joint proposal to establish light duty vehicle GHG and mileage standards for model years 2012 through 2016.

 

In response to concerns expressed by both industry and environmental interests that the CAA is not the best vehicle for regulating GHGs, factions in the House and the Senate have proposed sweeping legislation to reduce GHG emissions, the Waxman-Markey Climate Change bill, H.R. 2454, “The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009,” in the House of Representatives, and  the Boxer-Kerry bill, the “Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act,” in the Senate.  Both include GHG emissions reductions targets and use a cap and trade scheme to achieve those goals. In addition, they include a variety of other measures to encourage investment in alternative energy sources and energy efficiency. 

 

In recent months, efforts to move forward with this legislation seems to have been eclipsed by efforts to pass comprehensive  health care legislation, but the conventional wisdom was that some form of legislation would be passed once health care was put to rest. Now that the Democrats have lost a filibuster-proof super majority, prospects for climate change legislation seem to be dimming.

 

On the EPA regulatory front, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has been on the attack, trying to prevent EPA from promulgating GHG regulations that limit emissions from major sources. Most recently, she filed a “disapproval resolution” on January 22, 2010, seeking to retroactively veto EPA’s endangerment and cause or contribute findings that GHGs endanger public health and the environment, thereby .blocking EPA’s GHG regulations. 

 

A disapproval resolution is a procedural mechanism that prohibits executive branch agency rules from taking effect. It only requires 51 votes and is not subject to filibuster rules. Senator Murkowski claims to have the backing of 39 other senators, including three Democrats, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb., and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). She introduced this resolution on the heels of Scott Brown’s election, and she does not expect this resolution to reach the floor for a vote before Scott Brown is sworn into office.

Even if she is able to garner 51 votes in the Senate, the House must pass a similar resolution, and it must be signed by the President to go into effect. Even if it does not succeed, it signals a widespread lack of support, even among Democrats, for legislation controlling GHG emissions this year.  Scott Brown’s election should make it more difficult to enact climate change legislation, especially with an election season just around the corner because his election is being interpreted by many to signal the electorate’s disapproval of the Obama agenda. 

 

In the meantime, if there is no climate change legislation passed, EPA likely will continue to move down the regulatory path of limiting GHG emissions using its authority under the CAA.

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