Carbon Copy: Senate Report Trots Out Old and Baseless Charges

Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), the chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and a proud and unrepentant climate denier, yesterday released a staff report accusing the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) of "colluding" with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the development of carbon pollution standards.

This is an old charge - it was a favorite refrain of Senator David Vitter (R-LA), the previous Republican leader of the Committee (see our responses here, here and here) - and the new report offers nothing to make it more persuasive. Indeed, much of the report documents disagreements between NRDC and EPA, as EPA dragged its feet in developing pollution limits and NRDC complained, cajoled and threatened to sue.

Even the authors of the report don't seem to quite believe in the charge. The notion of "collusion" is sprinkled through the report and mentioned in the title, but the idea isn't really developed. It feels like something inherited from David Vitter's more free-wheeling reports. Instead, this report tries out a number of different charges to see if anything can make NRDC's advocacy efforts seem problematic - there's the idea of "sue and settle;" there's a line about "excessive" e-mail exchanges, whatever that means; there's the argument that NRDC was an "extension of the agency." But the report offers the documentation to refute all of its own accusations.

In any event, the report should be seen less as an attack on NRDC and more as a part of GOP leaders' increasingly incoherent effort to strike back against the President's plan to limit carbon pollution from power plants, which was released in final form on Monday. Republican leaders can't seem to decide if they want to deny that humans are contributing to climate change, or to say that we don't know enough to attack the problem, or to claim (without much evidence) that they have their own proposals to limit carbon emissions. The party leadership is only sure that it wants to block the one plan on the table that would actually accomplish anything.

Senator Inhofe's own views, of course, are unambiguous - he thinks climate change is a "hoax" - and the staff report at times admits that his real beef is about policy, not process. It refers, for example, to the President's proposal as "these highly controversial and legally suspect rules." (You can find NRDC's take on the plan here.)

But what of the process allegations? The report repeatedly claims that NRDC's dealings with EPA are proof of a "sue-and-settle" conspiracy. ("Sue-and-settle" is a tendentious claim, in general, as my colleague John Walke has explained.) But there's nothing to this.

The report begins by describing how EPA handled a suit that the Bush Administration - an administration that was dead set against limiting carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act - had already lost. So the talks at the outset of the Obama Administration were about how and when EPA would comply with an existing court order. One doesn't need a dark story of undue influence by outside forces to explain why an incoming Administration with a stated policy of wanting to address climate change would resolve a suit that was designed to force its recalcitrant predecessor to take action.

Most of the remainder of the report describes how EPA then failed to follow through on the settlement, and how NRDC (and other groups) kept pushing for action using every tool at our disposal. This is a story of "NRDC threatens to sue, and EPA fails to settle" that the Inhofe staff strives mightily to shoehorn into their "sue-and-settle" framework.

There's so much documentation because there was such an extended period of NRDC pushing and EPA holding back. The documents show each trying to figure out how to influence the other, with all the frustration, testiness and occasional caustic comments one would expect in such a situation. Some of this makes for entertaining and informative reading, but "collusion" is probably the last word to come to mind while working through the details.

That is not to claim, of course, that NRDC and EPA were simply bitter foes. NRDC and the Obama Administration both had publicly stated commitments in favor of acting on climate change, as even the report acknowledges. NRDC offered plans on how to cut carbon pollution in an effective and affordable way, and modeling to back that up. NRDC also suggested ways to explain those plans to the public. EPA considered what we had to offer, along with plans offered by others (some of which are also mentioned in the report). That's legitimate, successful advocacy, not a conspiracy. And the fact that people working for years on the same side of an issue had personal and professional relationships - how could it be otherwise? - doesn't make the story any more conspiratorial. Those people spent plenty of time arguing with each other, as the e-mails in the report make abundantly clear.

And the report, despite its length, should not be taken as some kind of comprehensive narrative on EPA's work on the Clean Power Plan. EPA also met with hundreds of others, including industry groups and states - both those that support and those that oppose climate action. As required by law, the agency went through a lengthy comment process on a public proposal and then undertook an extensive review of those comments and significantly revised its plans. Even if one took the report's innuendo at face value, it would be hard to conclude that the Clean Power Plan was the result of some secret deal or narrow discussion.

Senator Inhofe doesn't like the plan EPA came up with. He doesn't like that the public now wants climate action. He doesn't like that the public understands that carbon pollution contributes to climate change, and that experts have shown that climate change can have adverse consequences for human health, among other impacts. We welcome a debate with him on all those matters because that's what advocacy groups do.