By Chris Adams, McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — The head of the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday strongly defended the approach and legitimacy of an Obama administration power plant rule that Republicans attacked as regulatory overreach and Democrats said was vital.
In a hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the rule proposed last month will remove hundreds of millions of tons of carbon and hundreds of thousands of tons of other harmful air pollutants from the emissions of existing power plants that now taint the nation’s skies, boosting the health of American citizens and of the planet in general.
“The science is clear. The risks are clear. And the high costs of climate inaction are clear,” McCarthy told the panel in what was her first time testifying on the power plant rule. “We must act.”
But the rule is contentious, tied up in coal-country politics and the ongoing debate over climate change. In coal-heavy states such as Wyoming, West Virginia and Kentucky, citizens, politicians and industry groups have attacked the rule as a major disruption to their economies — part of what they say is President Barack Obama’s “war on coal.”
Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), a committee member, said that the concerns of coal states _ as well as others _ have been ignored as the EPA barrels ahead with its proposal.
“In fact, the administrator refuses to listen to the thousands of Americans who will be impacted by this rule,” he said. “The EPA administrator has refused to go out and visit folks in coal country whose lives the agency is upending. The EPA administrator won’t hold a public hearing in Wyoming — won’t hold a public hearing in Kentucky.”
In general, Republicans pushed McCarthy and the administration hard, saying that the EPA didn’t take enough input before releasing the rule and that it overstepped its legal authority in doing so. Beyond that, they said the whole rationale for the rule was flawed — that the science on climate change and global warming was unsettled and often contradictory.
Democrats responded that the rule-making process was elaborate and ongoing. As it stands, the rule is still in process, with a public comment period that runs through October and public hearings next week in Atlanta, Denver, Pittsburgh and Washington. They said that the legal authority for the proposal was well-established and that the overwhelming number of experts on climate change said it was time to act.
The rule at issue was released last month by the Obama administration and is designed to substantially reduce carbon pollution in the nation — a process that could shutter older coal-fired power plants and spur development of more wind and other alternative energy sources. It requires that states develop plans to lower carbon pollution by specified amounts.
The testimony from the current head of the EPA also came a month after four former administrators of the agency — all of them appointed by Republican presidents — appeared before a Senate panel and said that climate change is real and that the federal government has the responsibility and the legal authority to combat it.
While that session was somewhat out of the ordinary, most of Wednesday’s session fell along traditional party lines. Republican senators bashed the proposal as unnecessary and burdensome and Democratic ones said it was both vital and legitimate.
During opening statements, Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) bluntly laid out his objections.
“The proposed rule is a breathtaking regulatory overreach,” he said. “It is a job-killer. It is based on questionable science. It is of dubious legality under the Clean Air Act. It amounts to an end run against Congress. It is inflexible. It would have no effect on the climate and is therefore pointless, and it is punitive.”
Responded Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat and the committee’s chairwoman: “Well outside of that, you love it?”
And joked Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont: “So you’re leaning yes, it that right, Roger?”
Photo: haglundc via Flickr