While many progressives have lamented the inability of the President and the congressional leadership to pass legislation capping greenhouse gas emission, few have recognized that the White House always had a Plan B for averting the climate crisis – the EPA.
But if conservative Republicans take control Congress, preventing EPA from exercising their legal obligation to clean the air is one of their top priorities.
Why is the EPA so critical? As I wrote in July:
…It is against the law under the Clean Air Act, the Supreme Court has ruled, for the Environmental Protection Agency to ignore greenhouse gas pollution. And a congressional attempt to gut the Clean Air Act and block the EPA from acting was defeated this year.
That fact has always been part of the argument to press Senators from coal, oil, manufacturing and agribusiness states to accept climate compromises: if Congress doesn’t do it, the EPA will.
And that same fact has always the Obama administration’s Plan B.
The EPA is not going to announce an economy-wide carbon cap overnight. But it has been and will continue to announce a rule here and a rule there, continually ramping up pressure on Congress to pass legislation that will cap carbon emissions in a way that businesses will find more flexible than what the EPA is able to do.
The EPA has already begun that process, with newly proposed fuel-efficiency standards for heavy trucks, and a crackdown on coal-plant pollution is around the corner.
Yet leading Republicans can’t accept having an EPA that enforces the law. As TNR’s Brad Plumer explains:
…Republicans will try to pass resolutions stripping the EPA of its authority over greenhouse gases …
…If House Republicans can’t neuter the EPA directly, they can always try a sneakier, less overt approach—mucking with the budget. Back in 1995, Newt Gingrich’s crew managed to slash EPA funding by 25 percent, forcing the agency to cut back on inspections and criminal enforcement. And those budget cuts can have a big effect on policy…
..The other option is to make [EPA chief] Lisa Jackson’s life a living hell. Republicans have already promised to drag her in for hearings as often as possible once they control the congressional committees—Frank Lucas, the ranking GOP member of the House agricultural committee, has said he expects EPA oversight hearings once a week. ‘It will diminish her free time, shall we say,’ one former energy staffer told Politico.
Yes, it’s been frustrating watching Congress suffer paralysis as Democrats squabble over how best to address the climate crisis.
But it will be 100 times worse watching a right-wing Congress try to paralyze the executive branch and prevent it from enforcing the law.
And having a functioning executive branch is, at the moment, our only hope for keeping us on a path toward cutting carbon emissions and averting a climate crisis.