By CHAD ABSHIRE
WASHINGTON — The Democrat-controlled Senate recentlly defeated a bid to block the Environmental Protection Agency from setting the first federal standards to reduce toxic air pollution from power plants, an issue that divided West Virginia’s senators.
U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller (both D-W.Va.) were split on a measure known as the “Inhofe Resolution of Disapproval,” named after its sponsor, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) Manchin voted for it, while Rockefeller did not.
“Enough is enough,” Manchin said. “The people of West Virginia are tired of the EPA’s overreach, and I will do everything in my power to rein in the EPA – and any agency that oversteps its authority. The fact is, this rule will have devastating effects on our families, jobs and economy and doesn’t come close to striking a balance between the economy and the environment. Looking ahead, we need to come together across party lines to work on a solution that will truly address this problem.”
The measure would have overturned a long-overdue regulation to slash mercury and other toxic emissions from the oldest and most polluting oil- and coal-fired power plants. Since 1990, the EPA has had that power, and in 2000 concluded that such action was necessary. It also would have blocked the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS or Utility MACT) rule which gives existing coal fired power plants three years to meet the new standards for mercury and other toxic air pollution covered by the rule.
It wasn’t until late last year that the Obama administration approved new regulations, after a court threw out an attempt by the Bush administration to exempt power plants from such controls. Obama, in a video released at the time, said his administration had had enough of the decades of delays caused by special interests.
In a veto threat, the White House said the GOP attempt, if successful, could have prevented the government from ever controlling toxic power plant pollution.
According to a news release from Manchin’s office, the senator supported the resolution “to stop over-reaching EPA from using new, expensive rules for coal-fired power plants.”
Rockefeller, on the other hand, voted against it because “it does nothing to embrace coal’s potential.”
“It moves us backward, not forward. And unless this industry aggressively leans into the future, coal miners will lose the most,” Rockefeller said. “It’s not too late for the coal industry to step up and lead by embracing the realities of today and creating a sustainable future. We need a bold partner, innovation and major public and private investments.
“Yet here we are with another all-or-nothing resolution destined to fail. This foolish action wastes time and money that could have been invested in the future of coal. Instead, with each bad vote they give away more of their leverage and lock in failure.
Conrad Lucas, Chairman of the West Virginia Republican Party, slammed Rockefeller in an email to the Daily News.
“Sen. Rockefeller has shown his true colors by turning his back on coal miners all across West Virginia and voting to allow the EPA to continue its War on Coal,” Lucas said. “Rockefeller chose to vote to endanger the jobs of thousands of coal miners and side with President Obama, which is consistent with the demand of the West Virginia Democratic Party that all Democrats must support President Obama.
“Though we vehemently disagree with Rockefeller’s job destroying vote, we do acknowledge the fact that he is willing to be honest with the people of West Virginia about where the West Virginia Democratic Party establishment stands when it comes to supporting Obama or supporting West Virginia. Too bad Gov. Tomblin refuses to be as honest,” said Lucas.
Republicans were behind the effort, but didn’t get enough votes to move ahead. It was the second time in this Congress that Senate Republicans failed to muster a majority to scrap an Obama administration rule aimed at curbing air pollution from primarily coal-fired power plants.
Power plants are the largest remaining source of manmade mercury in the environment. Mercury is a toxic metal that’s known to impair brain development in children, including those exposed in the womb.
Republicans argued unsuccessfully that the benefits of the regulation did not outweigh rising electricity bills, the lost jobs from power plants shutting down, and its nearly $10 billion per year cost. They portrayed the regulation as an effort by the EPA to kill coal, which is responsible for nearly half of U.S. electricity production. But changing economics, such as low natural gas prices and reduced electricity demand, are big factors in older coal-fired power plants shutting down.
“If you vote against this … you are effectively killing coal in America,” said Inhofe.
The 46-53 vote was four short of the 50 needed to proceed to a vote on the resolution. Five Republicans voted against moving ahead, but five Democrats sided with Republicans in support of it.
Along with a handful of other rules on the verge of being implemented or already in place, the Utility MACT rule would cost the U.S. economy up to $275 billion over the next 25 years, according to the Electric Power Research Institute, and 1.3 million jobs over the next two decades, according to the National Economic Research Association.
“Beyond the frenzy over this one EPA rule, we need to focus squarely on the real task of securing coal for the long term while addressing legitimate environmental and health concerns,” Rockefeller said. “Let me be clear. I’m frustrated with some of the top levels of the coal industry, but I’m not giving up hope for real solutions for clean coal.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.