The House freshmen, the influential super PACs, and now the 2012 presidential candidates have all put EPA’s “job killing” regulations in their sights as part of an all-out political and legislative offensive against the agency. “We have got to get regulations in Washington under control. And EPA has become the standard-bearer for the [business] impediment that Washington has put in place,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told National Journal in an interview.
The once-sleepy EPA was blasted to the front lines of the most partisan political war in recent memory. Cantor has assembled a fall agenda that brings a new bill attacking an EPA regulation to the House floor almost every week—supplying perfect fodder for campaign-ad sound bites and town-hall events. “Now you get applause lines at home when you say you want to stop the EPA,” Cantor said. Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidates are playing offense. Front-runner Rick Perry slammed EPA as a “rogue agency” with an “activist mind-set.” Michele Bachmann famously said she wants to lock up the agency and turn the lights out. In a Washington Times op-ed last week, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky flayed EPA as an “out-of-control agency” that “violate[s] constitutional rights” and “turns everyday life into a federal crime.”
For better or for worse, the standoff between EPA and the coal-burning power companies has become a symbol of the fight between the government and industry—at a time when the political stakes couldn’t be higher for either. EPA says these are long-overdue rules that will clean up the environment, save the lives of American children, and generate many more economic benefits than costs. The industry, its Republican allies, and even some uneasy Democrats say that the agency has committed massive regulatory overreach that will boost energy prices, kill jobs, and threaten reliable electricity, tipping a stagnant economy into a free fall. Both messages are powerful, especially in Midwestern states—Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri—where coal is crucial to the economy. As it happens, these states are also crucial to the 2012 elections.
When Lisa Jackson arrived on the job in early 2009, she knew she would meet a massive backlog of paperwork—and she couldn’t have been happier about it. Waiting for Obama’s new administrator was a stack of court-ordered environmental regulations, some dating back 20 years. Many were stuck in legal limbo through the administrations of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.
Most people would groan at having to plow through an in-box like that. But Jackson saw the pile of ready-to-go rules as the opportunity of a lifetime.
It’s not hard to see why her predecessors delayed rolling out the regulations: Unleashing such a blitz of antipollution rules would subject politically powerful cornerstones of industry—first and foremost, operators of coal-fired power plants, which provide half the nation’s electricity—to tough new operating standards. The rules would dramatically clean up toxic coal emissions that cause a host of illnesses. But they would do it by forcing the nation’s biggest utilities to install expensive pollution-control technology on their oldest and dirtiest coal plants—and to take the very foulest of them off-line entirely.
Still, Jackson felt more than ready: Coming off the heady 2008 victory, it seemed like Obama’s environmental regulator could revitalize the mission of an agency that had languished on the back burner for at least a decade. And big, serious, national-level steps to save the environment and improve public health appealed especially to Jackson, whose 14-year-old son Brian suffers from asthma, a disease directly linked to exposure to coal pollution.
“Right now, we have greater opportunities to protect public health and the environment than any other time in the history of the EPA,” she said in a speech to regional environmental administrators, soon after taking office. “That message is that the EPA is back on the job…. We have much to do in restoring the country’s faith in our ability to protect the air, water, and land—now and for future generations.” Jackson noted that Obama’s first budget request to Congress gave EPA its highest level of funding in the agency’s 39-year history. “That also means that we have the highest level of expectation that we have seen in our 39-year history,” she said. Jackson and her team stuck to that vision, pushing EPA to the most muscular exercise of regulatory activity in decades, possibly since it was created.
EFFECTS AND CAUSES
Today’s Republican resistance is plenty ironic. After all, a GOP president, Richard Nixon, created EPA, and many of this year’s big rules were born during Republican administrations. Most of them date back to the landmark 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, which President George H.W. Bush hailed as a huge accomplishment when he signed them into law.