Bill to Block EPA Climate Regulations Moves Forward in Congress

On Tuesday, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives moved one step closer to passing a bill to permanently prevent the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating global warming pollution. The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved the bill, H.R. 910 or the “Energy Tax Prevention Act,” in a vote that fell mostly along party lines.

Under the guise of lowering gas prices, the bill would deliver several very lethal blows to EPA efforts to address climate change – and to President Obama’s energy agenda – by:

  • Prohibiting the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide and six others) in connection with climate change.

  • Repealing previous EPA actions and rules on climate, overturning the EPA’s science-based endangerment finding stating that greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, threaten public health and therefore are “air pollutants” which must be regulated.

  • Prohibiting Clean Air Act standards for improving vehicle fuel efficiency after 2016.

  • Preventing the EPA from allowing ambitious states, such as California, to set tougher vehicle emissions standards for greenhouse gases.

In a misleading attempt to gain public support for the bill, Representative Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and one of the bill’s co-sponsors, has been claiming that the bill would keep gas prices in check by reducing additional EPA regulations on oil refineries. “Make no mistake – if we allow the EPA to move forward unchecked, its actions will only drive gasoline and other energy prices higher,” Upton said in the L.A. Times.

However, Politifact, the nonpartisan Pulitzer Prize-winning project that serves as a political truth-o-meter, found Upton’s claim to be absolutely false, saying “there’s no proof that the law would actually stop gas prices from rising.” Additionally, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson pointed out before two U.S. House subcommittees last week that:

The bill still would block any Clean Air Act standards for greenhouse gas pollution from cars and trucks after 2016 … All told, nullifying this part of the Clean Air Act would forfeit many hundreds of millions of barrels of oil savings. At a time when gas prices are rising yet again, I cannot, for the life of me, understand why you would vote to massively increase America’s oil dependence.

Unbothered by the truth, Upton and others nonetheless continued to repeat this unfounded claim throughout committee proceedings.

House Democrats offered three failed amendments to insert language into the bill acknowledging EPA findings – which the National Academy of Sciences also strongly confirmed – on the science of climate change. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas)., who last year apologized to BP during Gulf oil spill hearings, ignorantly dismissed climate change as “a theory that hasn’t been proven” while other Republicans made the point that Congress shouldn’t be “legislating science,” even as they moved legislation forward to do precisely that.

To that end, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) likened House Republican efforts to undo EPA’s science-based findings with the “way the Vatican was able to repeal the finding of Galileo.” (For the record, the Vatican eventually ‘fessed up to being wrong.)

While 31 Republicans and three Democrats in the House – all unsurprisingly funded by climate policy saboteurs, Koch Industries – voted to dismantle portions of the popular Clean Air Act, diverse groups have voiced their opposition to H.R. 910, including small business and consumer interests, former military officers, health and medical professionals, and, of course, scientists.

On the other hand, the bill has plenty of support from big industry polluters, who reportedly gave it the go-ahead during a secret meeting in January with the bill’s sponsors, Reps. Upton and Ed Whitfield (R-Ky) and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). The full House will vote on – and likely pass – the bill later this spring, probably before the Congressional break for Easter at the end of April. Meanwhile, Democrats in the Senate are scrambling to rebuff similar last-minute efforts to handcuff the EPA’s climate authority as part of an unrelated vote this week. Unfortunately, these kinds of attacks on the EPA are becoming disturbing and regular occurrences that aren’t likely to disappear any time soon.

Photo: Juan Pablo Garnham, Creative Commons


I don’t know what “permanent” means in terms of legislation unless an amendment to the Constitution is being proposed, but that’s apparently not the case here. There appears to be legislative shenanigans going on, which may be because there’s no real chance of getting this bill passed, so it’s essentially a political stunt designed designed to appease supporters but achieve nothing except a symbolic victory.

I dislike bringing partisan politics into the issue of climate science because it tends to reduce the issue to it’s lowest common denominator of partisanship, where decisions are sometimes based on a sort of tribal loyalty. The problem is that the perception of climate science for many people has become that, it’s part of their identity politics. I can’t resist the temptation to compare this caricatured version of climate science to what Baudrillard referred to as a 3rd stage or 4th stage simulacrum. It’s moving from a straw-man caricature to a bizarro world fantasy in the minds of certain partisans.

There are frames (or mental models, etc.) that are in use here. They underlie much of the political right’s thinking on this issue and are present in unconscious thought even when they’re not cited. The first is that the EPA is a government bureaucracy and bureaucracies are merely an unnecessary hindrance to business. Terms such as “red tape” are used in the bureaucracy frame to indicate the uselessness of environmental regulation and the parasitic nature of bureaucrats who enforce these regulations. Thomas Nast’s Boss Tweed is a good likeness for the imagery that’s being invoked by the bureaucrat frame.

A second frame is the economic frame which equates regulation with waste. An example of this frame would be the failure to build adequate dikes surrounding New Orleans prior to hurricane Katrina. Therefore, the argument against environmental regulation (all those “lost jobs”) is that any environmental regulation of business activity increases costs and therefore (via a multiplier effect) translates to lost jobs.

Of course, there’s a lot of problems with these frames. And some of these problems are empirical, which means that the frame is a sort of fairy tale that influences attitudes but doesn’t actually work the way it claims. The first problem is with bureaucracy frame. Businesses aren’t less efficient because of regulation but they do pay a greater cost because of it. The greater cost is the result of refraining from harmful acts against others, which is what the EPA regulates. In other words, what the frame is saying is that businesses could make more money if they dumped dangerous chemicals rather than dispose of them properly. The frame is specifically alluding to a Negative Externality or cost that is being pushed out on others. The true cost of conducting business is not being paid by the business that’s producing the problem. Moreover, there’s an incentive for the business to produce greater negative externalities, so the net economic impact can actually be negative (in the long term) even though the business increases its profits, because of the rising costs of the Negative Externality born by others.

Both the bureaucracy and waste frame employ the same reasoning so what was argued in the paragraph above applies to the waste frame, too. However, one of the ideas behind the waste frame is measures such as the floodwalls in New Orleans are waste. It’s rather hard to figure out how a flooded New Orleans gained economically by being destroyed but that’s exactly what this frame says. Moreover, what it says is that there’s a multiplier effect and – ceteris paribus – money saved is money spent in the local community. I don’t want to go into the subtleties of this economic argument but it’s clearly not always true. Some money is repatriated to corporate coffers and there’s no multiplier effect. Moreoever, what certain is that money that’s already spent is money that did produce a greater multiplier effect. What’s at issue here is not whether some economic activities produce reater or lesser stimulus but of HOW that money is used. The frame has sucked us into a line of reasoning in which New Orleans’s destruction was good economically, because the money saved by not building adequate dikes could be saved and recirculated.

I didn’t want to go on here so I’ll close with this final comment – what’s always been ironic about the rightwing frame is that it labels government as a necessary evil. This might make sense if there had been a coup but it’s specifically our own government that’s being labeled as evil. Oddly, the term freedom is often used to describe actions in opposition to government. In a Representative Democracy/Republic, actions by duly elected representatives to protect the public good is freedom, in the sense of autonomy, but those same actions are being portrayed as the opposite of that freedom. Moreover, what’s being portrayed as freedom are acts which illegally (torts) harm others or take from them, in the form of negative externalities. I think it’s important for people to understand how these frames work so they can see how someone can arrive at such extraordinary conclusions.