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Climate Bill Skirmishes Pt. 1: The Murkowski Amendment June 15, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Politics.
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Energy reform is long overdue for this country and it was on the legislative agenda even before BP sponsored 2010 as “Oil Drilling Risk Awareness Year.”  The House of Representatives passed its climate/energy bill almost a year ago, and the Senate is finally preparing to attempt to follow suit.

The first skirmishes of the climate battle have already been fought in the Murkowski “Dirty Air” Amendment and a much less publicized incident regarding ocean acidification in the House of Representatives (which will be presented in a second post due to the unexpected length of this one).

Let’s start from the beginning.  As you may know, in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v. EPA that greenhouse gases (GHGs) pose enough of a public health risk (via climate change) to be considered “pollutants” under the Clean Air Act.

That ruling imposed a legal obligation upon the EPA to do one of two things:

1)    Either issue an “endangerment finding” that carbon dioxide poses a public health risk – and then regulate GHG emissions, or;

2)    Provide proof that carbon dioxide is harmless.  Such proof does not exist, so the Obama EPA issued its endangerment finding in November 2009.

There were two years between the Supreme Court ruling and the endangerment finding.  Why?  The Bush administration.

Jason Burnett was a former associate deputy administrator of the Bush EPA.  The Supreme Court ruling came in April 2007.  The following December, Burnett emailed the EPA’s conclusion that GHGs are pollutants to a White House office.  When White House officials heard he was sending that email, they called him and ordered him not to send it.  When he told them he already had, they actually demanded he recall the email (this can be done in some email programs).  Burnett refused and resigned.

In June 2008, the New York Times discovered that because White House officials did not want to act on the information in that EPA email, they had simply never opened it.  They just left it in their inbox, unread, with the justification that they didn’t have to act on the email if they hadn’t read it. That actually happened.  And it was enough to delay climate action in the executive branch for years – until Obama’s election.

When Obama’s EPA finally released its endangerment finding last year, the ring wing threw a fit.  Republicans had been enjoying decades of legislative success in blocking climate and energy reform, and here was Obama’s tyrannical executive branch finally putting the nation’s interests first and actually acting against a grave threat.  How dare they?

Congressional Republicans were particularly angry about the endangerment finding because it could supplant congressional authority [not] to legislate on the issue.  So last January, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced an amendment to reverse the EPA’s endangerment finding.

For a senator with such a proven history of representing the oil industry, it seems like a basic piece of legislation: the endangerment finding gives the EPA the authority and obligation to act, so her amendment seeks simply to overturn the ruling to remove that impetus.  But consider what she was actually attempting to do.

The endangerment finding is a nonpartisan summary of science.  All it says is that a warming climate caused in part by human emissions of GHGs will present a public health and welfare risk.  That’s it.  No policy prescriptions, just scientists warning about a scientific danger.

Obama and Bush have very, very different stances on climate change.  Yet the Obama administration’s endangerment finding is very similar to the one that was produced and then buried by the Bush administration (it was released last October by a Freedom of Information Act request).  The science is settled.  Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) correctly described the Murkowski amendment as, “a choice between real science and political science.

The Murkowski “Dirty Air” Amendment sought to grant Congress the authority to determine what is scientifically true in our world.  It is the most inappropriate piece of legislation I have ever seen.  Moreover, it was a reprehensibly transparent demonstration of the level of industry involvement in our legislature – the Murkowski amendment was literally written by lobbyists for the oil industry!

Another post with no good visuals, so here's Murkowski in a different fishy situation.

“Who elected the Environmental Protection Agency?” asked a furious Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY).  Answer me this, John: who elected the oil lobbyists who wrote this amendment?  Scientists are qualified to address scientific concerns.  If scientists tell us carbon dioxide is irrefutably a pollutant, that point should be legislatively unimpeachable.  I should never have had to make that point.  The only people overstepping their bounds here are the senators who voted for this amendment.  And they’re doing it to preserve their right to continue shirk their duty to that electorate Barrasso pretends to care so much about.

The measure came up for a vote last week.  It failed, but barely: 53-47.  Every Republican and six Democrats* voted for the amendment.  And more Democrats than that expressed support for this resolution before cowing to party pressure.  Sen. Rockefeller (D-WV) even has his own pending version of the proposal that would undermine EPA authority for (at least) two years.

*Landrieu (D-LA), Lincoln (D-AR), Pryor (D-AR), Nelson (D-NE), Bayh (D-IN), Rockefeller (D-WV).

In reality, the Murkowski amendment was never going to become law.  It had very little chance of getting through the House, and even if it miraculously did, it would have met an Obama veto.  Everybody knew that, including Murkowski.  This was grandstanding.

Most people, even within the administration, don’t want the EPA to have to regulate carbon dioxide.  There is general agreement that Congress should be the body to address an issue as big as climate/energy.  Politically, this EPA action just puts a deadline on Congress…a much-needed deadline, as they have postponed this issue for decades.  It also manufactures a talking point for Glenn Beck et al. about Obama’s plan to take over the country.

Conservatives who oppose progress have concluded that delay and doubt are more successful strategies than full denial.  That’s why Republicans always call for “more research” and tell Democrats they need to “go back to the drawing board” whenever we actually try to tackle an issue.  You saw it for healthcare reform and you will see it again for climate.  It lets them pretend to care about the issue in general and claim to just have problems with the specific way that Democrats are doing it.

But, like healthcare and a host of other issues, climate change is a threat that has already been put off for too long.  We must act now if we are to have any chance of preventing this crisis.  Congress has had ample time to act on this issue.  At some point, enough is enough.  If legislators refuse to take action yet again, it is fully appropriate for the EPA to do so. In fact, they are obligated by law.

The Murkowski amendment was the first round of this year’s climate battle.  And it demonstrates what a tough fight we have ahead.

This was not a bill to regulate GHGs.  The implications were clear, but no specific proposals were included here.  There were no numbers to argue about, no regional winners and losers yet.  This was an argument about whether or not to pass a law at all.  And the actual amendment didn’t even go that far – it was basically just a congressional rejection of climate science.  And it nearly passed.

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1. Ocean Acidification (Climate Bill Skirmishes Pt. 2) « The Political Climate - June 21, 2010

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[…] Begich, Offshore Drilling, Oil, Pat Leahy, Senate trackback Now that I have devoted two recent posts to what Congress isn’t doing, it’s time once again to look at what little they actually are […]

3. Why the EPA Should Regulate Carbon « The Political Climate - July 7, 2010

[…]  So if Congress won’t, the EPA should.  The Supreme Court agrees; if Congress doesn’t act, the EPA is legally obligated to regulate GHGs as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. The EPA will not supersede legislative climate action; it […]

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[…] amendment, about which I will write more soon, is similar to Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-AK) “Dirty Air Act” amendment that was narrowly defeated in June.  If amendments were allowed, she too would […]


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