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National Journal Earth Week 2011 / EARTH WEEK

Carper Keeps His Eyes on the Skies

Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del.(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

photo of Mike Magner
April 22, 2011

When he was Delaware state treasurer in the 1970s, Sen. Thomas Carper made a reputation for cleaning up the state’s once-dismal financial ratings. Now as chairman of a key Senate subcommittee, Carper is on a crusade to clean up the air we breathe.

But Carper’s cause, which he insists will improve health and the economy, has been set back in recent months.

A year ago, Delaware’s senior Democratic senator had bipartisan support for a bill to tighten limits on three of the most common pollutants from power plants: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and mercury. “We worked hard on that last year,” Carper said, “but at the end of the day utilities wanted to see what the political landscape looked like in the new Congress, so the Republicans pulled back.”

 

With the GOP in control of the House and holding a larger minority in the Senate, Carper’s so-called “3P” legislation is on ice and most of his time as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air is spent defending the Environmental Protection Agency from budget cuts and authority rescissions.

“We’re taking it one day at a time,” Carper said. “We won the first round and lived to fight another day,” he added, referring to Senate votes on April 6 rejecting four proposals to limit or block EPA regulation of carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.

Carper, 64, hasn’t always had the environment near the top of his agenda.

A West Virginia native with an economics degree from Ohio State University, he spent three tours of duty in the Navy during the Vietnam War before earning an MBA at the University of Delaware and winning the first of three terms as state treasurer in 1976. At the time, Delaware had the worst credit rating of any state, but within six years Carper managed to boost it to “AA” on Wall Street, a performance that helped him win the state’s at-large congressional seat in 1982.

After 10 years in the House, Carper was elected Delaware’s governor in 1992, serving two terms before knocking off Republican Sen. William Roth in the 2000 Senate race.

One of Carper’s first assignments was the Environment and Public Works Committee, and he’s been on the Clean Air Subcommittee his entire time in the Senate. His interest in air pollution extended to his time as governor, when he felt the state was losing business opportunities because of high utility costs at the same time emissions from coal-fired power plants in the Midwest were pouring down over Delaware.

“It’s unfair; it’s wrong,” Carper said. “It’s an economic development issue for us.”

The answer, in Carper’s view, is strict national standards for emissions, so that one state cannot produce cheap electricity and make neighboring states pay a price with dirtier air. Some utilities will even say privately they prefer that approach so that there is more certainty in their planning for future power needs, he argued.

Carper got an early start to celebrating Earth Day last weekend -- because “for me, every day is Earth Day” -- by promoting the all-electric Chevy Volt at a waterfront festival in Wilmington, Del. He’s also making a big push for a wind-energy project off the coast of Delaware within the next two years.

Carper practices what he preaches about the environment on a daily basis, riding the Amtrak train between Washington and Wilmington every day the Senate is in session. “It’s my best quiet time and my most productive time,” he laughed.

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