Why Is Fred Upton Lending His Name To The Koch Brothers' War On EPA And Americans' Health?

Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), the new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is all over the news these days with his calls to block steps by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to curb dangerous pollution from dirty power plants and other big polluters.  

In fact, since last fall Congressman Upton has staked out positions against steps to curb virtually every kind of pollution spewing from power plants and other big industries, which is unfortunate as Michigan ranks 5th in the nation for premature deaths caused by power plant pollution. Yet, Congressman Upton is against updating the smog pollution standard, against cutting mercury and other toxic pollutants from thousands of coal-fired industrial boilers, and against cutting the power plant and oil refinery carbon pollution for which there are currently no limits of any kind.

More recently, the Chairman has joined with polluter front-groups as well, such as the Koch Industries-backed Americans For Prosperity (AFP). In a widely publicized joint op-ed with AFP president Tim Phillips in the Wall Street Journal last week, Upton claims that EPA’s plans to limit global warming pollution are “an unconstitutional power grab” that will “kill millions of jobs.”  Together they wrote: 

The best solution is for Congress to overturn the EPA's proposed greenhouse gas regulations outright. If Democrats refuse to join Republicans in doing so, then they should at least join a sensible bipartisan compromise to mandate that the EPA delay its regulations until the courts complete their examination of the agency's endangerment finding and proposed rules.

We’ve never seen an energy committee chairman literally lend his name to the big polluters’ agenda like this before. Especially when the agenda is being pushed by a Koch-funded astroturf group which the Washington Post recently revealed is using Tea Party activists as mute TV props.

That aside, there are just so many things wrong with what Chairman Upton and AFP’s chief said in their op-ed.

“Unconstitutional”?  “Power grab”?  The Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that by passing the Clean Air Act, Congress itself gave EPA authority and responsibility to curb air pollutants, including carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, if they are dangerous to our health and welfare.  There’s no constitutional issue here -- not even dissenting Justice Scalia thought so. 

So the EPA is doing just what the Supreme Court ordered, under the law that Congress itself enacted.  EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson found, based on overwhelming scientific evidence and after input from every quarter, that these pollutants are already harming our health – by contributing to killer heat waves, more dangerous storms and hurricanes, making it more difficult to meet smog standards, and in many other ways.  So she set standards to curb carbon pollution from new cars – standards that are supported by the entire auto industry!  And she set in motion the first steps to put achievable, affordable limits on carbon pollution from the biggest new power plants and factories.

“Kill millions of jobs”?  The Wall Street Journal reports today that the U.S. auto industry is back on its feet and – this time – is prepared as gas prices creep up,  Why?  Because they’ve revamped their fleets with cleaner, more fuel efficient cars – cars that meet the new standards set last year.  People who buy those new cars are going to save up to $3,000 because they use less gas – and emit less pollution.

And what about their proposal to automatically stop the regulations while the courts consider the polluters’ legal arguments?  Well, there’s already an opportunity for the polluters to stop EPA regulations while the court cases are pending.  That’s by asking the courts for a “stay” – equivalent to a temporary injunction.  To get that, you have to show that enforcing the standards right away would cause “irreparable harm.”  Surely, killing a lot of jobs would qualify – if you could prove it.

Well, the coalition of polluters and the great state of Texas went to not one, but two courts and threw everything they had at EPA, trying to back up Upton’s and the Koch brothers’ claims of economic harm and job loss.  But they failed to convince either one.  (Not to mention they lost in the court of public opinion too, with the Dallas Morning News and Houston Chronicle both criticizing the polluter's and Texas' attempts.) 

Not surprising, since as Dallas Burtraw, a noted economist at Resources for the Future, put it:  “it is impossible to demonstrate now that the costs of those requirements will be excessive for the sources or burdensome – or even noticeable – for the overall economy.”  The Courts of Appeals in both Washington and New Orleans sent them packing.

Now Upton and Phillips want Congress to give the polluters the stay that the courts found they don’t deserve.  Actually, that would wreak havoc with the auto makers – a constituency that a Michigan Congressman should care especially about.  But they’ve rebuilt their plans and reengineered their fleets around the EPA clean car standards.  That’s why the car companies opposed the polluter coalition’s request for a stay.  The last thing they want is to have Congress put those standards in limbo for another year or two, with who-knows-what outcome.

Not only is the “power grab” assertion complete hogwash, but this anti-EPA posture puts Upton at odds with most Americans - even Republicans. Public opinion polling by Opinion Research Corporation shows that 83% of Americans - including 83% of Republicans - think that the scientists and experts at the EPA should be making decisions about safeguarding public health from pollution, rather than Congress.

Until recently, Upton had a fairly moderate approach to environmental issues in general and climate matters specifically. As Mother Jones  reported yesterday:

AFP's interest in thwarting EPA regulations is clear. But Upton is another story. Less than two years ago he declared, "Climate change is a serious problem that necessitates serious solutions," and he praised a wind energy program back home in Michigan. While Upton has staunchly opposed cap-and-trade legislation, over the years he's partnered with Democrats on a number of bills that would help cut emissions-including one to spur the development of carbon-capture and storage technology for coal-fired power plants, another to improve lighting efficiency, and yet another to increase funding for a Department of Energy loan program to help automakers retool factories to create more efficient vehicles. While other members of his caucus pledged to wage on compact fluorescent lightbulbs, Upton stood out as a voice of reason.

The conventional wisdom is that Upton has had to line up with polluters on climate and environmental issues in order to capture his House chairmanship in a period where the Tea Party is in ascendancy. But we hope that Congressman Upton will find a path back to the Fred we once knew, who served as a moderate and rational voice on environmental and health issues.

Thanks to my colleague David Doniger for significant contributions to this blog.