State leaders, experts dismiss McConnell's advice to "just say no" to the Clean Power Plan

For members of Congress, losing touch with the public is an occupational hazard. After 30 years in Washington, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is no exception.

1990 CAA mcconnell on cspan.PNG

A young Senator McConnell voted for the 1990 Clean Air Act, telling the Lexington Herald Leader "I had a choice between the status quo and clean air - I chose clean air."

On behalf of polluters, McConnell published an op-ed a few weeks ago, calling on states to reject action to climate change, claiming that the EPA's Clean Power Plan is "probably illegal." Last week, McConnell doubled down on his "just say no" message with a letter to the National Governors Association, telling governors in all 50 states to refuse participation in the Clean Power Plan.

Not only is this bad advice to pragmatic, law-abiding Governors, but it flies in the face of the core Republican principle that leadership should come from the states, not Washington. That principle is likely part of the reason that McConnell voted for the Clean Air Act in 1990.

McConnell's own state, Kentucky, is not responding to his call. A senior state official responded by saying that Kentucky's Energy Cabinet does not agree with Senator McConnell, and added that "the overwhelming majority of our stakeholders are telling us to make preparations to submit a plan."

McConnell is not just out of step with his home state - Governors, energy experts, and the American public don't agree with the Majority Leader either. Here's the central startling fact: although power plants are the nation's largest source of the carbon pollution that drives dangerous climate change, there are no national limits at all on how much carbon pollution they may emit. EPA has proposed the Clean Power Plan to close this carbon pollution loophole.

States disagree with McConnell

The reason governors are not rushing to McConnell's bandwagon is that the Clean Power Plan puts states in the driver's seat, and they want to stay there. As my colleague David Doniger points out here, for 45 years, the Clean Air Act has empowered states to shape their own pollution reduction plans. EPA steps in only if the states fail to act. McConnell is suggesting that states refuse to take control to tailor their own plans.

States are very familiar with the Clean Air Act process, and most prefer to take charge of how Clean Air Act goals are met in their states. States are resisting McConnell's call because refusing to design their own compliance path simply cuts states out of the process.

  • On the same day it received McConnell's letter, the National Governor's Association announced the launch of its "Policy Academy" to help states prepare for their participation in the Clean Power Plan. Governor Tom Wolf called the academy a "great opportunity to help Pennsylvanians write a Clean Power Plan that will work for Pennsylvania and improve our economy and environment."
  • Extreme right-wing state legislators, allied with the coal industry and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), have attempted to block or delay the Clean Power Plan with a flurry of proposed state legislation, but thus far the majority of these bills have failed. Although most legislatures are still in session for a few more months, already this year ALEC's legislative attacks on the Clean Power Plan have been quashed in Colorado, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, South Dakota, and Virginia.
  • Even in places like Ohio, whose attorney general joined a premature lawsuit last year about the Clean Power Plan, governors have not refused to submit a plan to EPA. SNL Energy reported that Craig Butler, director of Ohio's environment agency, said "It's just a proposed rule...I would take nothing off the table."

Experts disagree with McConnell

Instead of following McConnell, states are likely listening to the variety of noteworthy experts who have panned the Senator's plea:

Christine Todd Whitman, George W. Bush's former EPA administrator said of McConnell's March 3rd op-ed:

"It is extremely disappointing and has the possibility to undermine our nation's entire rule of law."

Jody Freeman and Richard Lazarus, environmental law professors at Harvard University, said:

"States have always understood that it is in their best interests and that of their citizens to file plans and design their own pollution reduction programs themselves--for the straightforward reason that nobody knows a State's own political and economic priorities better than they do."

Jamie Van Nostrand, professor at West Virginia University College of Law, said:

"It might feel good to not play with the EPA, but I think it's bad for the states' citizens...You're less likely to end up with the least-cost compliance strategy."

Sue Tierney, energy policy expert at the Analysis Group, former DOE Assistant Secretary, and former state public utility commissioner, said: "[Refusing to write your own plan] just means somebody else is driving your car."

Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, said:

"Naysayers, [who are] painting such a bleak picture and trying to constrain the flexibilities that EPA is offering to the states, are going to have just a chilling effect on the ability of agencies to implement this program in the way that the public expects states to do."

Cathy Woollums, chief environmental counsel at Berkshire Hathaway Energy, asserted that the 2030 state pollution targets under the Clean Power Plan are achievable. Regarding the strategy that states refuse to submit plans, she said:

"We will be caught in a situation where we don't have any options...And that's the worst of all positions to be in."

The American public disagrees with McConnell

Six in 10 Americans, including half of Republicans, support limits on carbon dioxide to fight climate change. Majorities across all parties say environmental protections improve economic growth and provide new jobs, all according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and Yale University December 2014 poll. In addition, bipartisan polls for Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois showed that 80% of respondents want their state to design its own specific plan to cut carbon pollution from power plants -- directly at odds with McConnell's call for states to refuse to submit their own plans. My colleague Pete Altman goes further into these results here.

People support limits on carbon pollution because it's a common sense solution -- climate change puts our health and our communities at risk, and we owe it to our kids and grandkids to curb pollution now. In addition, the Clean Power Plan will drive a clean energy boom, creating thousands of clean energy jobs by expanding renewable wind and solar power, and energy efficiency. An NRDC study shows that a strong carbon pollution standard could create 274,000 efficiency-related jobs, with greater demand for electricians, heating/air conditioning installers, carpenters, roofers, insulation workers, and construction managers. Last Thursday, former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm announced "The American Jobs Project," focused on identifying local and state opportunities to boost innovation and economic growth in conjunction with the rollout of the Clean Power Plan.

Perhaps Mitch McConnell has been in Washington a little too long and is losing touch with real Americans. He's driven by the big polluter agenda, and by the beltway's political polarization. Governors live and work in the real world and are wise to ignore McConnell's advice.

About the Authors

Aliya Haq

Deputy Director, Clean Power Plan Initiative

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