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Alaska Senator aims to stop US Environmental Protection Agency emissions controls, drawing the eyes of the world

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Publish date: January 24, 2010

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK – A bipartisan group of senators led by Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska are aiming to nullify US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) efforts to clamp down on greenhouse gasses under the aegis of the Clean Air Act in a move that could deliver a body check to on of President Barack Obama’s top domestic and international priorities.

Prospects that comprehensive climate legislation will be passed by the US Congress, and the EPA has been moving forward as something of a White House secret weapon to implement regulations that would put expensive limits on industrial and mobile pollution – painting a target on the back of the Agency’s head at which industry and some members of Congress are taking aim.

Murkoski, in a speech on the Senate floor, said she so far had the firm support of 35 fellow Republicans – of which she will need 41 – and three Democrats for legislation that could move through the Senate in an expedited process, according to a Congressional aide who spoke with Bellona Web.

Foreign countries are closely watching Washington’s actions on climate control as they weigh how forcefully they will join international calls for aggressively tackling climate change problems that could range from widespread drought and flooding to melting polar ice and rising sea levels.

Resolution could test Senate’s climate mettle– or dissolve into rules

If there is a vote on Murkowski initiative, it could be an early barometer of the Senate’s willingness to address broader climate change legislation this year.

“Congress must be given time to develop an appropriate and more responsible solution” than EPA to climate change problems, Murkowski said in open session Thursday. She warned that looming EPA regulation would lead to job losses and broader economic problems.

Yet the White House is unlikely to give up its regulatory power, Joe Podesta, an Obama supporter and head of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, told The Washington Post. He said that said that although the administration is still hoping for a legislative solution on climate, “they’re not going to give up their authority to move forward in the absence of comprehensive legislation. We’ve seen how difficult it is to get 60 votes for almost anything.”

Murkowski is the senior Republican on the Senate Energy Committee and represents a major energy-producing state that also is showing signs of suffering from global warming. While she has said she supports looking at ways to address climate change, she has mainly supported more narrow bills on developing alternative energy and allowing more domestic oil and natural gas drilling.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer has expressed outrage over the Murkowski move calling it “unprecedented” and likening it to Congress overturning a finding that cigarettes are bad for one’s health. At a press conference, she portrayed the Murkowski resolution of dissaproval as an assault on established science.

Yet Murkowski argued that her resolution would prevent a “wave of damaging new regulations” and give Congress more time to debate energy legislation. She has called the threat of EPA regulations the “centrepiece of a highly coercive strategy” to force Congress to move faster than it otherwise would on climate legislation.

Regulation to litigation backlash?

Last month, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said her staff had figured out how it could impose a nationwide, market-based system to curb greenhouse gases like the one being contemplated in Congress. Waving the regulatory stick has been a move supported by the Bellona Foundation.

But she also acknowledged –  as has Bellona president Frederic Hauge – that such an approach could set off years of litigation from industries that would have to comply with new and potentially complex federal rules and would probably impose higher costs on industry than steps that would be shaped by lawmakers.

Indeed, the Obama administration itself said earlier this fall that it would prefer legislation to regulation, but the regulatory approach had obviously been put in place as a cudgel to force congress to act on climate legislation. The Murowski resolution shows things are hardly going according to plan.  

The resolution to block EPA regulation introduced by Murkowski would require passage of the house, senate and Presidennt Obama’s signature, a scenario seen as highly unlikely, analysts told Greenwire.

Chaos on the Hill as Senate shies away from climate bill

But the bipartisan back off of allowing the EPA to move forward with regulation was a good barometer of just how far off the rails things have slid on US climate legislation, especially since the bolt-from-the-blue election of Republican Scott Brown to take the place of the late Ted Kennedy in a senate seat that had been in democratic hands for over 50 years.

Meanwhile support among Democrats and Republicans alike to back a so-called “plan B” to the climate legislation that passed committee in November began to gain traction at week’s end. This plan supported by a variety of Senators on both sides of the aisle would return the majority of revenue raise through a climate programme supporting cap-and-trade to US energy consumers through a dividend, the congressional aid said, confirming remarks reported by Greenwire.

The plan was introduced by Washington Democrat Maria Cantrall and Maine Republican Susan Collins.

Other legislators began sounding the death knell for the passage of climate legislation in any form this year. The election of Brown has introduced too much variability they say. Senator Max Bacus, a Montana Democrat, told Greenwire that “it’s completely unclear” if a climate bill has a chance of passing this year, while retiring Senator Judd Gregg, a Republican from New Hampshire put a bill’s passage at “zero to negative 10 percent,” the agency reported.  

And despite requiring Obama’s signature for her resolution to take effect, Murkowski remained confident she could may be within range of winning the 51 votes she would need to pass the resolution and  speed it to a floor vote, she told Greenwire.

Having already picked up three democratic senators for her cause, she told reporters that she would be able to rely on votes from at least 10 other democrats on top of the Republicans she is also trying to secure who are from states that rely heavily on agriculture, manufacturing and where unemployment is high.

Democrats in her camp so far are Senators Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Mary Landrieu of Lousiana are already on board, Murkowski told reporters.

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