Murkowski Resolution a Misguided Attack on Environmental Protections

Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski’s “dirty air” resolution comes to the Senate floor this afternoon for a vote.  The bill seeks to overturn EPA’s “endangerment finding” (Dec. 2009) and to revoke the agency’s authority to regulate emissions of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

This repudiation of environmental protections is unacceptable.

The “endangerment finding” is a scientifically-grounded assessment on the adverse human health impacts of greenhouse gas pollution.  And EPA’s authority to regulate harmful greenhouse gases fits the language and intent of the Clean Air Act, as affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court two years ago, in Massachusetts v. EPA.

However, the bill’s sponsors are defiantly unwilling to accept the opinions handed down by our top court and scientists.  Playing both the jurist and the toxicologist, Senator Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana) declared back in January:

I am supporting Sen. Murkowski’s resolution because the Clean Air Act was never intended to regulate greenhouse gases…greenhouse gases do not harm our lungs and pollute our air.

This is simply incorrect on all counts.  The Clean Air Act allows EPA to set standards for the emissions of “any air pollutant…which may be reasonably anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.”  The public health impacts of extreme climate change are well-established, and include increased incidence of extreme weather events, heat waves, aeroallergens, vector-borne disease, and the social-disruptions associated with climate-related migration, to name just a few.  The U.S. Supreme Court said the Clean Air Act was meant to cover this; is that not enough?

In addition to the Murkowski resolution’s readily apparent (but no less troubling) pandering to the polluters, the bill represents a uniquely cynical capitulation to the excesses of Tea Party populism.

In an entreaty to the Tea Party folks, the Murkowski faction has stepped up its attack on the “unelected bureaucrats” at EPA.  Tuesday evening, Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia) joined the misguided campaign against “government,” explaining that he wouldn’t put the fate of West Virginia’s workers “in the hands of EPA.”  Senator Rockefeller’s anti-protections stand appears inconsistent with his recent call for heightened regulation in mining.  In the age of unrestricted corporate influence in electoral politics, and poor safety regulation in the private sector (especially West Virginia—see Massey Coal), the vilification of EPA is libertarian doublespeak.  

Supporters of the Murkowski resolution might indicate they are “absolutely not” satisfied in the Obama Administration’s response to the oil spill crisis (Landrieu), or that the executive is mired in a “same-old, same-old bureaucratic state of mind” (Senator Vitter, R-Louisiana).  But these remarks only scrape at the symptoms of the deeper problem that Murkowski and friends are unprepared to address.

The Gulf disaster is a symptom of our deep-rooted addiction to fossil fuels.  We cannot naively imagine that a nation of addicts will lift itself out of the petro-economy without a supporting feedback and incentive structure and a viable alternative.  While we continue to push for comprehensive climate legislation to provide the necessary framework for change and to lay the basis for the green economy of the 21st century, we have precious limited tools to combat our dependence on 19th century dirty fuels.

EPA’s proactive lead in greenhouse gas regulation is a critical aspect of the effort to reduce our rampant, destabilizing, and destructive dependence on foreign and offshore oil.  While the endangerment finding does not, in itself, prescribe regulations, it provides the legal basis for critical standards: EPA’s proposed CAFE efficiency standard for light-duty vehicles is projected to save over 455 million barrels per year, and an anticipated standard for heavy-duty vehicles will save billions more.  Stripping EPA of its authority to implement these protections would increase our nation’s dependence on oil and send hundreds of billions of dollars overseas.  We cannot afford this big step backward, especially as we watch more oil gush into the Gulf each day.