The Risk For Republicans In Fighting The Cap On Carbon

Bill Scher

I’ve argued both here and at Real Clear Politics that the EPA climate regulations announced Monday, while critical to the planet, are politically treacherous for Democrats, especially this November when several Democrat-held Senate seats in coal and oil states are up for grabs.

But that doesn’t mean there are no risks for Republicans in opposing these rules. And with President Obama and the EPA coming out strong with a creative rule designed to avoid negative economic impact, and with sharp prebuttals against the usual attacks about lost jobs and higher bills, Republicans may want to take heed before overplaying their hand.

For one thing, it’s clear that continued climate science denial is political poison.

Sixty-nine percent of Americans say global warming is a serious problem in a newly released ABC/Washington Post poll. Go down the path of science denial, be prepared for a lot of backtracking and contorting, like Sen. Marco Rubio just suffered.

It appears that the coal lobby is aware that science denial is a loser. The National Mining Association’s Hal Quinn, while on ABC’s This Week last Sunday, passed on the opportunity to deny. Asked by the host, “do you accept the premise that this is a problem that has to be addressed and that the science is clear?”, Quinn replied, “We can address the problem. We can lower emissions.”

Of course, he then proceeded to argue for building more coal plants, so long as they were a bit cleaner. But the point is, he knew he had to signal that he accepted the science or else he wouldn’t be taken seriously. We’ll see if other Republicans are as cognizant of the political and scientific realities as Quinn, or if they are foolishly drowning in denial like Rubio.

Republicans may well follow Quinn’s cue, and shift their focus away from science denial, to drill a lost jobs/higher costs argument.

But as I noted in my Real Clear Politics piece, “Obama may have an ace up his sleeve: support from executives of utilities, which are also about to be more tightly regulated.”

Last week, buried in a New York Times preview of the new rules, are quotes from industry executives sounding supportive, particularly about the likelihood of state flexibility, including the option of “cap-and-trade” systems where utilities can buy and sell a finite number of pollution permits. “By trading on carbon credits, we’ll be able to achieve significantly more cuts at a lower cost,” said the CEO of FirstEnergy. “The broader the options, the better off we’re going to be.” Added a vice-president of American Electric Power: “We view cap-and-trade as having a lot of benefits. … It could keep the cost down. It would allow us to keep coal units running for a more extended period.”

Obama has been able to deploy support from corporate executives in several instances to blunt conservative attacks and advance liberal goals. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed the stimulus. The pharmaceutical industry spent millions to pass Obamacare. Individual executives were trotted out to express comfort with repealing the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy. If, once again, Obama has some friendly executives in his back pocket, 2014 may be a lot less hot for the climate, and the Democrats.

Now that the rule has been announced, the Edison Electric Institute, which is the lobby for the utility industry, released a hopeful statement, if neutral for the moment:

It is crucial that the baseline from which emission reductions are measured recognizes the significant voluntary actions and investments already taken by states and electric utilities to reduce GHG emissions, transition to a cleaner and enhanced generation fleet, and comply with other environmental regulations. While the 2030 reduction target is ambitious, it appears that utilities may be allowed to take advantage of some of their early actions.

In any final guidelines, it is imperative that EPA provide the states with achievable targets, emission reduction goals, and compliance deadlines. The proposed timeline for states to submit plans to EPA recognizes that ample time is needed to develop and implement new emission reduction programs.

While we are still assessing the overall proposal, EPA appears to have allowed for a range of compliance options to reflect the diversity of approaches that states and electric utilities have undertaken and may undertake to reduce GHG emissions. Flexible compliance is necessary to maintain a diverse portfolio of generating sources. However, there are some concerns about EPA’s broad approach to ‘best system of emissions reductions,’ and we will look at this issue carefully.

We appreciate that EPA today also proposed separate standards for modified and reconstructed units. Units that are obligated to take actions to comply with other environmental regulations need clarity on the future regulatory framework.

The 120-day comment period that EPA is allowing for both of these proposed guidelines and standards reflects the complexity and importance of these rulemakings. We will work with our member companies throughout these rulemaking processes to provide EPA with relevant information, data, and comments about the impact these proposals will have on our industry’s ability to provide reliable and affordable electricity to all customers.

That’s pretty good for an industry about to be significantly regulated. Several optimistic comments about various aspects of the package. Nothing about job-killing or higher customer bills.

If Obama can get some of these executives to actively and aggressively debunk right-wing attacks, Republicans will have a much harder time making the economic case, even if they can restrain themselves from dismissing science.

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