House subcommittee votes to curb EPA authority

Plan would reduce the agency's ability to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.

After two hours of heated debate, the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Energy and Power Subcommittee voted along party lines Thursday to slash the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.

The bill is expected to pass the full committee and the House, and then hit a wall in the Senate or face a presidential veto.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, says it could clear the Senate. "I think we can get the permanent law," he told National Journal Daily.

While President Obama has threatened to veto any such measure, Barton thought he may change his mind.

"That's what [Obama] says today, but what he says in August may be different," he said.

As the debate ensued, Democrats, who voted unanimously against the measure, held on till the very last minute, questioning counsel and their colleagues on the details of the bill.

Republicans framed their support for the bill with an emphasis on high gasoline prices, saying EPA regulations would only increase them, but Democrats countered.

"It's laughable to assert that requiring new power plants and refineries to meet minimum efficiency standards is affecting prices at the pump," Energy and Commerce ranking member Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said in his opening remarks.

Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., agreed, accusing Republicans of harnessing high gas prices as a political tool and "scaring American people into supporting a bill that is as irresponsible as it is untruthful."

While Democrats and Republicans debated heavily in the markup, they sometimes used similar arguments to make diverging points. For instance, invoking the specter of China.

A popular argument against EPA regulations among GOP lawmakers has been that the agency's rules hinder job creation and send U.S. jobs overseas.

"Not only will we lose manufacturing jobs to nations like China that have no similar constraints on their own industries, but we will be outsourcing emissions as well -- all economic pain for no environmental gain," Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky. said in his opening remarks.

Democrats said a vote to block EPA authority is actually a vote to send clean-energy jobs overseas, as other countries such as China plow ahead with renewable and clean-energy development.

"This bill doesn't move America forward in any sense," subcommittee ranking member Rep Bobby Rush, D-Ill., told colleagues.

"Instead of encouraging energy companies to plan, invest, and become more competitive with the trends and realities of the future, this bill encourages companies to stand pat and keep doing business the same way they have for the last 50 or 100 years," Rush said.

While Democrats such as Rush continued to encourage panel members to pursue bipartisan comprehensive legislation to advance the nation's clean-energy future, Republicans reminded them such a measure stalled last year.

"I support a cleaner environment, but let's be honest, neither a cap-and-trade energy tax nor EPA regulations achieve that goal," said Energy and Commerce Chairman Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.

Democrats looked to take apart the legislation in every way they could during the markup, questioning its effect on fuel economy standards, its regulations on carbon, its questioning of scientific authority, and even its name.

While Whitfield and counsel said that they crafted the bill with a sincere effort to protect the EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from cars and to institute the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, Democrats called that into question.

Waxman said the bill would repeal the endangerment finding upon which the EPA's authority to institute the vehicle standard is based, leaving it open to legal challenges.

But Maryam Brown, chief counsel to the subcommittee, retorted that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's fuel-efficiency regulations would not be impacted by the law.

Brown admitted to Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., that the bill would eliminate the EPA's ability to regulate black carbon, so long as it relates to climate change.

In addition to questioning whether the bill would protect carbon regulation, Inslee joined his colleagues in saying that the measure is an attack on climate science.

Inslee and Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., were sure to sprinkle their arguments with scientific terminology, with Markey asking whether the law of gravity was next on the Republican agenda.

Congressional authority was also on the mind of Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. The former chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee congratulated his colleague from Michigan, Upton, on slyly crafting the legislation Republicans have called the "Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011."

"There must be a tax in there," Dingell said, asking the chief counsel: "Where is it?"

"It is not a direct tax. It's a tax through regulation," Brown responded.

But Dingell kept twisting the knife.

By definition, he said, a tax raises funds for the government. He asked if the EPA's endangerment finding raises such funds.

"No," Brown responded.

The Energy and Commerce Committee, Dingell told Upton, is not tasked with dealing with tax legislation, arguing that it may not be a good idea to attract "unwanted attention" from their colleagues in the Ways and Means Committee.

"This situation's a nasty mess," he said.