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Poll Finds Public Backs EPA, Not GOP, on Mercury

FILE- This Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, file photo, shows Midwest Generation's Crawford Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant, in Chicago. The share of U.S. electricity that comes from coal has fallen to its lowest level since World War II. Utilities are aggressively ditching coal in favor of natural gas, which has become cheaper and produces far fewer emissions of toxic chemicals and gases that contribute to climate change. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)  
National Journal
Amy Harder
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Amy Harder
June 19, 2012, 5:45 p.m.

A ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans don’t sup­port a Re­pub­lic­an-backed meas­ure the Sen­ate is ex­pec­ted to vote on Wed­nes­day that would nix a land­mark en­vir­on­ment­al rule con­trolling air pol­lu­tion from power plants. But they don’t sup­port the reg­u­la­tion as is, either.

A new United Tech­no­lo­gies/Na­tion­al Journ­al Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion Poll finds that 57 per­cent of the pub­lic sup­ports a re­cently-fi­nal­ized En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency rule con­trolling mer­cury and oth­er tox­ic air pol­lu­tion from coal-fired power plants as long as com­pan­ies are giv­en more time to com­ply.

The poll found that a sim­il­ar ma­jor­ity — 55 per­cent — thinks EPA should be able to con­trol green­house-gas emis­sions that most sci­ent­ists agree cause cli­mate change. Just slightly more than one-third of the pub­lic — 36 per­cent — said Con­gress should stop EPA from such reg­u­la­tion. A fed­er­al court is ex­pec­ted to rule soon on wheth­er the agency is with­in its right to reg­u­late green­house-gas emis­sions.

The poll’s find­ings put a ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans out of step with Sen­ate En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber James In­hofe, R-Okla., who is spon­sor­ing a meas­ure com­ing up for a vote on Wed­nes­day that would nul­li­fy EPA’s mer­cury rule en­tirely. Just un­der 20 per­cent of sur­vey re­spond­ents said the Sen­ate should vote to up­hold the rule as it stands now, while only 14 per­cent said the Sen­ate should vote to get rid of it. The sur­vey in­dic­ates that most Amer­ic­ans are seek­ing a middle ground between pub­lic-health pro­tec­tions and jobs — a fight that politi­cians of­ten re­duce to an “either/or” paradigm.

Con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans, along with the coal in­dustry and con­ser­vat­ive groups, are warn­ing that if the rule is not over­turned, it could cripple the coal in­dustry — and elim­in­ate many of the jobs that go along with it. Sup­port­ers of the rule, in­clud­ing most con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats, say those con­cerns are over­blown and that the util­it­ies are already shift­ing to nat­ur­al gas. Coal ac­counts for 42 per­cent of U.S. elec­tri­city right now, but that per­cent­age is quickly go­ing down as nat­ur­al gas, which ac­coun­ted for 25 per­cent of the elec­tri­city pie in 2011, gains an in­creas­ingly large piece.

A bi­par­tis­an pair of mod­er­ate sen­at­ors — Lamar Al­ex­an­der, R-Tenn., and Mark Pry­or, D-Ark., are float­ing a meas­ure that would give com­pan­ies six years to com­ply (up from the cur­rent three years). The Sen­ate is not ex­pec­ted to vote on their bill, but the two are plan­ning to write Pres­id­ent Obama ur­ging him to grant more time to com­ply. “I’m not sure if this new rule is per­fect, but I think the biggest com­plaint I hear from people is wheth­er they’re go­ing to have enough time to com­ply in three years,” Pry­or said re­cently.

En­ergy has been a policy area where Re­pub­lic­ans have found real trac­tion with the pub­lic be­cause of a slow eco­nom­ic re­cov­ery and high gas­ol­ine prices. An earli­er edi­tion of the Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion Poll found over­whelm­ing sup­port for build­ing the Key­stone XL pipeline, an is­sue that House Speak­er John Boehner has made a cent­ral part of the GOP agenda. In Janu­ary, the poll found 64 per­cent of the pub­lic sup­port­ing the pipeline and only 22 per­cent op­pos­ing it.

Across the board among dif­fer­ent party af­fil­i­ations, re­gions, and demo­graph­ics, this latest edi­tion of the sur­vey finds that a ma­jor­ity of re­spond­ents sup­port the EPA mer­cury rule as long as com­pan­ies have more time to com­ply. Even 57 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans said they sup­port the rule with more time al­lowed to com­ply.

In­ter­est­ingly, a slightly lar­ger per­cent­age of re­spond­ents who iden­ti­fied them­selves as in­de­pend­ents said the Sen­ate should up­hold the rule as it stands now, com­pared with Demo­crats: 22 per­cent of in­de­pend­ents sup­port the mer­cury rule as is, while 20 per­cent of Demo­crats feel that way.

EPA has said that it will work with in­di­vidu­al util­it­ies to grant an ad­di­tion­al year or two for com­pli­ance if ne­ces­sary, but Pry­or says that should be ex­pli­cit for all com­pan­ies.

“You’re prob­ably in the end go­ing to get the six years any­way, so go ahead and be up front about it,” Pry­or said. “And let every­one budget and do what they need to do.”

Par­tis­an dif­fer­ences were more pre­val­ent when re­spond­ents were asked about EPA reg­u­la­tions con­trolling cli­mate-change emis­sions. While 55 per­cent of the pub­lic thinks EPA should be able to reg­u­late green­house gas emis­sions, in­clud­ing car­bon di­ox­ide, few­er than half of Re­pub­lic­ans — 40 per­cent — thought so. Demo­crats and in­de­pend­ents were more aligned in their po­s­i­tions sup­port­ing EPA’s au­thor­ity to reg­u­late green­house gases: 65 per­cent of Demo­crats and 59 per­cent of in­de­pend­ents were sup­port­ive.

Cli­mate change, more so than any oth­er en­vir­on­ment­al is­sue, has be­come po­lar­ized in the last couple of years. Pro­pelled by con­ser­vat­ive at­tacks on cli­mate change and the tea party move­ment, con­ser­vat­ive voters have be­come in­creas­ingly skep­tic­al that cli­mate change is hap­pen­ing. This trend is re­flec­ted in the sur­vey’s find­ings.

The demo­graph­ic most eager for Con­gress to stop EPA from reg­u­lat­ing green­house-gas emis­sions is white Re­pub­lic­ans, 53 per­cent of whom favored ob­struct­ing the agency. Older Amer­ic­ans — es­pe­cially men — also were more likely to op­pose EPA in this area. A ma­jor­ity of all Re­pub­lic­ans — 52 per­cent — said Con­gress should not let EPA reg­u­late green­house gases.

By com­par­is­on, just 16 per­cent of white Re­pub­lic­ans said the Sen­ate should over­turn EPA’s rule con­trolling mer­cury and oth­er pol­lu­tion from power plants, and 55 per­cent said they sup­port the rule if more time is giv­en. Cli­mate-change policy is all but dead in Con­gress, but the ex­pec­ted rul­ing from the U.S. Court of Ap­peals for the D.C. Cir­cuit could send the is­sue back to law­makers.

The United Tech­no­lo­gies/Na­tion­al Journ­al Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion Poll, con­duc­ted by Prin­ceton Sur­vey Re­search As­so­ci­ates In­ter­na­tion­al, sur­veyed 1,002 adults by land­line and cell phone from June 14-17. It has a mar­gin of er­ror of plus or minus 3.6 per­cent­age points.

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