Groundhog Day: Rockefeller Re-Run Is Bad News for Both Public Health and the Future of West Virginia

It’s Groundhog Day today.  In the movie of the same name, the hero is condemned to relive the same day over and over, until he straightens out his life.

The movie’s plot line came to mind on Monday when Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) re-introduced his bill from last year to block the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from doing its job under the Clean Air Act to reduce the dangerous carbon pollution spewing from the nation’s power plants and other big polluters. 

The bill – the “EPA Stationary Sources Regulations Suspension Act” – would impose a two-year ban on EPA’s taking any regulatory action regarding carbon dioxide and methane pollution from any “stationary source.”  

Taking license from the Groundhog Day theme, I’m going to repeat the reasons why the Rockefeller bill would actually be bad news not only for public health, but even for the future of coal.

First, what exactly would the bill do?

  • Rockefeller’s bill would block EPA from issuing long-overdue performance standards for power plants and oil refineries.  These are the number 1 and 2 carbon polluters in the nation – power plants release 2.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year (40 percent of the nation’s total) and oil refineries emit hundreds of millions of tons more.  In December, EPA announced a timetable for setting these safeguards over the next two years.  The bill would stop that in its tracks. 
  • Rockefeller's bill also would retroactively block the common-sense first steps that took effect in January to assure that the biggest new power plants and factories – plants that will operate for decades – are built at the outset with available and affordable controls to reduce their carbon pollution. 

Despite Sen. Rockefeller’s hyperbolic rhetoric, these standards are no threat to the economy or to job growth.  The reason is that, by law, they have to be both achievable and affordable.  EPA is legally prohibited from making businesses take steps that are too costly or that would hurt the economy. 

Second, let’s deal with the fiction that this is just a two-year delay.  These supposed short-term delays are like letting roaches into your house – once they get into legislation it’s very hard to get them out.  A one-year rider blocking new fuel economy standards was robotically extended five times, contributing to the conditions that bankrupted two of our car makers when gas prices rose and all they had to peddle was gas guzzlers.  There are too many examples like this – unwelcome bugs who came to dinner and wouldn’t leave.

Sen. Rockefeller said again in his Congressional Record statement Monday that a two-year delay is needed to give Congress time write comprehensive climate legislation.  “I believe that climate change is an important issue and Congress should and will address it working collaboratively with the administration and the private sector.”  That would have been possible last year, if Sen. Rockefeller had put his shoulder to the wheel at the critical moments when the Senate might have acted.  But everyone knows that’s a pipe dream in this Congress.  So at the end of the first two years, the Senator will almost certainly be asking for two more.

This is a bad deal for public health.  While EPA is blocked from doing its job year after year, nothing will be done to reduce the pollution that is contributing to death, illness, and injury through more killer heat waves, more smog, the spread of infectious diseases, and stronger storms, floods, and hurricanes.

This is also a bad deal for West Virginia.  Like his former colleague Sen. Robert Byrd, Sen. Rockefeller knows that if coal is to have a future, our nation must learn to use it without releasing carbon pollution into the atmosphere and to address the variety of other health and environmental insults that coal inflicts.  This means, among other things, ending the ruinous practice of mountaintop removal coal mining and deploying technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS).  "We must give Congress enough time to consider a comprehensive energy bill to develop the clean coal technologies we need and reduce our dependence on foreign oil, protect West Virginia and improve our environment," Rockefeller said in a statement on Monday.   Groundhog Day-like, these are exactly the same words he said on introducing the bill last year, right down to the oxymoronic industry term, “clean coal.” 

Rockefeller’s interest in CCS is undoubtedly sincere.  But as my colleague Dan Lashof has observed, the main effect of a two-year delay “would be to stifle the private sector investment essential to commercializing this technology.  The climate legislation passed by the House in the last Congress would have accomplished the goals Senator Rockefeller has endorsed, including providing very generous support for deploying CCS technology.  But the Senate didn’t even bring the bill up for a vote, in part because of Rockefeller’s objections. The likelihood is that two years from now Senator Rockefeller will still be arguing we need more time for the development of CCS.” 

Passing Rockefeller’s bill would only put us in a Groundhog Day do-loop, with delays following delays for who knows how long.  This would be bad news for public health and just as bad for the future of West Virginia.