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The Week Ahead

Obama Likely To Tout Climate 'Plan;' GOP Poised To Advance Bill Curbing EPA Rules

Posted: January 27, 2014

President Obama's State of the Union address is likely to emphasize actions the president and the administration can take without Congress, such as the list of administrative actions detailed in the Climate Action Plan. But Republicans are wasting no time in seeking to block the EPA rules at the center of the action plan, scheduling a markup for a bill that would all but halt the agency from proceeding. In court action, EPA is expected to announce a year-end deadline to complete its long-awaited coal ash disposal rule.

Climate Action Plan

Early signals from top White House officials suggest that when the president appears before Congress Jan. 28 for his annual State of the Union address, he is going to tell lawmakers and the nation that the the administration plans to use executive and administrative actions to advance portions of its agenda, rather than relying on a dysfunctional legislative branch. “The president sees this as a year of action, to work with Congress where he can and to bypass Congress where necessary,” Press Secretary Jay Carney told ABC's This Week.

While that approach may be new in some areas, the administration has long taken a go-it alone approach on environmental issues, most notably its Climate Action Plan, which President Obama unveiled last summer.

The centerpiece of the plan -- EPA's pending greenhouse gas new source performance standards (NSPS) for new and existing power plants -- is well under way, though the document also detailed a host of additional steps the administration is taking to address climate change. In addition to the EPA rules, the plan also calls for measures to strengthen local infrastructure to adapt to climate change, working with insurers to assess new insurance products and other financial mechanisms to cover climate risks and the trillions of dollars in potential losses from power outages and other weather impacts already straining federal disaster relief funds.

The action plan has long faced opposition. Shortly after its release, Organizing for Action (OFA) -- the advocacy group launched to help implement the White House' agenda -- announced steps to defend the plan from GOP attacks. More recently, the White House has brought in former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta, an important step given the recent departure of Heather Zichal, the president's former energy and climate advisor.

While environmentalists have long welcomed the administration's commitment to launch the EPA rulemakings, they recently urged the White House to go much further. In a recent letter to the president, they urged him to abandon his "all-of-the-above" energy policy and instead impose a climate test on all future energy decisions.

Top EPA officials are slated to appear at a number of climate-related events this week where they will likely reiterate the president's message. For example, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is slated to appear Jan. 30 at the 14th National Conference and Global Forum on Science, Policy and the Environment, which this year is titled “Building Climate Solutions.”

And Joe Goffman, climate policy advsior in EPA's air office, is slated to discuss EPA's ongoing rulemakings at a Jan. 30 conference -- “Setting the Scene: GHG Regulations for Electric Generating Units under CAA Section 111-- The Statutory Framework and the EPA Process” -- sponsored by the Environmental Law Institute and the Edison Electric Institute.

In Congress

Republicans in Congress are not waiting for President Obama's State of the Union address to launch their attack. The House Energy & Commerce Committee is slated Jan. 27 to begin marking up H.R. 3826, a bill that would effectively kill EPA's pending rulemakings.

Sponsored by Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY), with a Senate companion backed by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), the bill would scrap the agency's proposed NSPS for new power plants and limit EPA's power to regulate the sector's emissions.

Whitfield and other supporters of the bill are concerned that as proposed, EPA's NSPS for new plants will bar construction of new coal-fired units as it effectively requires installation of carbon capture and sequestration technologies that advocates say is not yet available. EPA and others say however that no new coal plants are planned for construction due to cheap natural gas prices and other factors.

While Republicans acknowledge the bill is unlikely to be enacted, they hope its advancement in the House will force Senate Democrats -- especially vulnerable Democrats facing tough re-election races -- to take difficult votes on EPA's climate policies near the 2014 elections. Whitfield said in a recent interview that he hopes the bill would reach the House floor for debate in late February or early March, adding that he wants it to advance as a standalone measure to elevate the debate on the issue.

"It's going to be an issue in a lot of Senate races,” he said, “because [what] we're talking about is the option to be on the table that you can build a new coal power plant in the future."

In other congressional action, House and Senate negotiators are expected to complete work on a long-awaited Farm Bill, which could include several provisions addressing EPA pesticide policies. Returning lawmakers are also expected to tout legislation that seeks to address the recent chemical spill in West Virginia.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is holding a hearing Jan. 30 on Nuclear Regulatory Commission measures to enhance nuclear plant security in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.

And the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee is holding a Jan. 28 hearing on critical minerals policy and a June 30 hearing on whether to lift the ban on crude oil exports.

In Court

EPA, environmentalists, recyclers and other parties are expected to announce an agreement for a year-end deadline for the agency to complete its long-awaited rule governing disposal of coal ash, putting officials on track to issue the rules relatively soon after it issues related water rules governing releases from coal ash facilities.

A federal judge late last year granted an EPA request to give the agency until Jan. 29 to provide a plan on how to meet a Resource Conservation & Recovery Act (RCRA) requirement to review and, if necessary, revise its coal ash disposal rules.

In other court news, amicus parties in the pending Supreme Court review of EPA's greenhouse gas permit rules are slated to file briefs by Jan. 28; the state of Oklahoma, along with its oil and gas industry, is expected to petition the high court by Jan. 29 to review EPA's air quality policies regulating regional haze; and EPA is slated Jan. 30 to file a brief defending its 2013 renewable fuel standard rule.