GOP, industry target EPA toxic-pollution rule

A top Republican is mounting a push to strike down the Environmental Protection Agency’s new mercury and air-toxics standards for power plants.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has filed a resolution that would nullify the EPA rule, which became official today when the agency published it in the Federal Register.

“Today the United States Senate can look forward to having one more opportunity to stand up to President Obama’s war on affordable energy,” Inhofe said in a statement in calling the rule “one of the most expensive environmental rules in American history, second only to his proposed cap-and-trade rules that failed to pass legislatively.”

EPA’s Mercury and Air-Toxics Standards for power plants, which the agency unveiled in December, sets the first-ever limits on toxic pollution from power plants more than 20 years after Congress first tasked the agency with studying the matter in the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. The EPA claims each year the regulation, also known as Utility MACT, would prevent 11,000 premature deaths, about 5,000 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks, and provide up to $90 billion in annual health benefits versus $10 billion in annual costs.

Inhofe’s resolution stems from the Congressional Review Act, which allows a member to seek a vote on whether to strike down a regulation. Inhofe’s resolution needs just 30 signatures to get a vote and just a simple majority vote to pass the Senate and can’t be filibustered, meaning he would need to pluck four Democrats and keep all Republicans in line to get it through the upper chamber. But even if it passes both chambers of Congress, President Obama could veto it.

Environmentalists who support the rule ripped into Inhofe.

“Today Senator Inhofe is sacrificing our children’s health to protect polluters,” Jillian Hertzberg, associate with Environment America, said in a statement. “The Mercury and Air Toxics standard is a landmark public health safeguard that has been decades in the making, and is a breath of fresh air. Sen. Inhofe’s action will allow polluters to get away with poisoning our children.”

But the regulation has long served as a poster-child among Republicans as they attack regulations coming from the Obama administration. Pointing to industry-fronted, studies, they claim the rule would force coal-fired power plants to shut down, costing thousands of jobs, raising electricity prices and perhaps threatening grid reliability.

The National Mining Association, an industry group, said it filed a motion against the rule with a federal court in Washington, saying the EPA “has dangerously underestimated the impact of the Utility MACT and related rules on the reliability of the nation’s electricity grid.”

The EPA has said its rules have never caused power reliability problems and suggested its rules wouldn’t kill jobs as the GOP has suggested.

Several independent analyses have agreed. A study from the Congressional Research Service, the nonpartisan research arm of Congress, recently found the rule probably won’t cause reliability problems.

Similarly an Associated Press analysis found that the regulation and the EPA Cross-State Air Pollution Rule would speed up the retirement of several coal-fired power plants, particularly old, inefficient ones that still don’t have modern pollution controls, but “their demise probably won’t cause homes to go dark.”

Sue Tierney, managing principal at the Analysis Group, an economic consulting firm that has studied EPA rules, said many industry studies that painted doomsday scenarios assumed the regulation would be far more stringent than it actually is.

Tierney, who served as assistant energy secretary under President Bill Clinton, also said EPA rules are just one factor, along with natural-gas prices and other economic conditions, that goes into determining a coal plant’s future. They could serve as the last straw for older, less efficient plants that are nearing the end of their useful life, she said.

“It is a trigger for a business decision whether to put any more money into something that won’t have a long life anyway,” Tierney said.

The House has passed numerous bills, with strong Republican but little Democratic support, that would delay, block or weaken several EPA energy regulations. Similar efforts in the Senate to attack EPA rules have failed.

Inhofe’s resolution is the latest Republicans have filed in an attempt to stop the Obama administration from implementing environmental and energy regulations they view as costly to the economy.

In 2010 Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, floated a resolution of disapproval to kill the EPA’s recently acquired power to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. That resolution failed to get a majority.

A resolution filed last year by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to nullify the cross-state rule, which would reduce border-crossing emissions that can form ozone and particulate matter, also failed. Moderate Republicans in Northeastern states whose air quality suffers when the pollution drifts there from upwind states joined Democrats in opposing the resolution.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a business group, and Murkowski gave their support to Inhofe’s resolution today.

“We thank Senator Inhofe for his leadership and stand ready to help get this Resolution of Disapproval to the President’s desk for signature,” Bruce Josten, executive vice president for government affairs at the Chamber, said in a statement.