Now even more toxic legislation is gathering support. Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — aided by corporate lobbyists like Jeffrey Holmstead, formerly with the Bush EPA and now head of environmental strategies for the lobbying firm Bracewell & Giuliani, and Roger Martella Jr., a partner at Sidley Austin — has written a resolution that would overturn the EPA's original greenhouse gas endangerment finding.
Alaska is a big oil, gas and coal producer, and Murkowski is one of the top recipients of petroleum industry campaign donations. So far this year she has received $188,000; only two senators, Democrat Blanche Lincoln and Republican David Vitter, have received more oil and gas money than Murkowski.
Murkowski's resolution was introduced January 21 under the little-used Congressional Review Act, which means it needs only fifty-one votes to pass and cannot be blocked from a vote by Senate majority leader Harry Reid. Although it is called a "resolution of disapproval," it would have the force of law. So far forty other senators are on board, including three Democrats — Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.
In the House, Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas, has written a companion resolution of disapproval. Not surprisingly, Barton is tight with polluters; over the past two decades he has received more than $2.7 million in direct campaign contributions from electrical utilities and the petroleum industry.
Obama would, by all accounts, veto the Murkowski or Barton bill. But their point is not so much to gut the EPA in Congress as it is to intimidate, delay, confuse and blunt into irrelevance any EPA action. Other pushbacks are taking the form of lawsuits and petitions from the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and fossil fuel lobbies. Fifteen states have filed suits seeking to block the EPA's endangerment ruling, and at least seventeen state legislatures have seen bills introduced to strip EPA powers. None of these efforts are likely to achieve their stated goals, but they are all part of a right-wing and corporate strategy to send a message to Obama and the Senate, where real EPA-stripping could happen if Kerry-Lieberman-Graham passes.
Behind much of this state-level pressure is money from Charles and David Koch, petroleum magnates who are increasingly notorious for funding far-right ventures such as FreedomWorks, a tea party organizer, and think tanks that traffic in climate-change denial. One of their organizations, Americans for Prosperity, is running a Regulation Reality Tour, which is trying to whip up outrage about the "EPA's power grab." Part of this Astroturf campaign involves political theater: fake "carbon cops" in little green Smart cars with flashing lights pull out badges and issue citations for carbon "crimes" like mowing a lawn.
But green groups are organized to fight back and are having some success, as witnessed by the EPA's recently issued regulations under the Clean Water Act, which will sharply curtail mountaintop removal [see Eshelman, page 17]. Unfortunately, many big environmental groups in Washington have not made defending the EPA a priority. Most endorsed Waxman-Markey, and in late March twenty of the biggest groups came out in support of the still-unpublished Kerry-Lieberman-Graham bill. Those groups included the Alliance for Climate Protection, Environment America, the League of Conservation Voters, Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, Blue Green Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for American Progress Action Fund and Union of Concerned Scientists. The Sierra Club has switched to defending the EPA and opposing any climate change bill that strips the agency of its power; other environmental groups may soon follow.
So where is the Obama administration? The president says he prefers climate legislation to EPA regulation. That is an unnecessary concession; Obama does not need to wait for Congress. In this situation, American politics is not hostage to an obstructionist right-wing fringe or the lack of a sixty-vote supermajority. Existing laws allow — even require — broad and robust action.
Throughout American history the executive branch has steadily been accruing power. Before the 1930s presidents rarely proposed legislation. Even LBJ worried that his phone calls to lobby senators could violate the "separation of powers doctrine." Nixon created the EPA in 1970 precisely to concentrate more power in the hands of the executive. He gathered up all the existing environmental programs, gave them no extra money and put them in one agency, which answered to a director appointed by the president. The Bush administration practically searched the vest pockets of bureaucrats to find ways (often illegal) to enhance presidential prerogatives.
And the current president?
"Obama, like Bush before him, is happy to assert unlimited executive authority when it comes to the war on terror, detention without trial, warrantless wiretapping," says Brendan Cummings, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity. "But when it comes to addressing global warming, he refuses to use his clear and lawful executive power to reduce greenhouse pollution to protect people and the planet."
"Heading into an election, I think, the administration is very leery of offending powerful corporate interests," says Tyson Slocum of Public Citizen. "That is especially true when those corporate interests make campaign expenditures in swing states."
Other greens agree. "At stake in the fight over the EPA's ability to address global warming pollution is not only the president's environmental record but really the core promise of his presidency, to change the way Washington works," says Kert Davies, director of research at Greenpeace USA. "The year behind us on energy and climate policy shows what you get when the Obama administration's seeming compulsion for compromise meets the entrenched power of the coal, oil and nuclear industries."
Tragically, climate change is not an issue where compromise will work. Bad healthcare bills can be improved; but on the climate front, time has run out. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations are at 390 parts per million and need to go back to 350 ppm. Already, oyster farms in the Pacific Northwest are in decline because of ocean acidification caused by climate change. Last year many Midwestern crops were too rain-soaked to harvest. Drought, likely linked to climate change, is battering much of Latin America, Africa and Asia. Everywhere signs of nature's unraveling are evident.
Allowing Congress to strip the EPA of its review powers or letting the administration dither away its responsibility to act boldly would be a disaster. The EPA is our last, best hope.