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GOP Launches Brazen Bid to Give Carbon Polluters Free Rein

03/25/2015 05:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2015
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Congressional Republicans are proposing legislation this week that would allow states simply to "opt out" of the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, the pioneering plan to curb carbon pollution from our power plants.

A budget amendment by Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) and a bill by Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY) strike at the heart of the federal Clean Air Act by letting each state simply walk away from national clean air requirements, giving big carbon polluters free rein to foul the air.

This is the McConnell-Boehner Congress's most dangerous and brazen bid to carry out the big polluters' agenda to derail crucial action on climate change.

These bills would force us back to the dark days half a century ago when powerful polluters had a free hand to poison our air, because states were unwilling or unable to protect their citizens.

Nearly 50 years ago, congressional leaders made it a national responsibility to protect Americans' health and environment. They saw that air pollution doesn't stop at state boundaries, and that unscrupulous polluters could play one state off against another. When one state became a haven for the biggest polluters, Americans in other states suffered. And they saw that even the most well-meaning states lost leverage over their own polluters when the rules were weaker in other states.

So they passed the 1970 Clean Air Act with huge bipartisan majorities, to protect all Americans, wherever they live, and President Nixon signed it into law. The law established national pollution control obligations for power plants and other industries, and it created a federal and state partnership to carry those standards out.

Since then, the Clean Air Act has directed the Environmental Protection Agency to set national clean air standards -- in this case, standards for carbon pollution from the nation's power plants. The law gives states the first shot at meeting these national standards, by writing state-specific pollution control plans tailored to local conditions, with the flexibility to do so in the most cost-effective way. But if a state cannot, or will not, control its own polluters, the law guarantees that EPA will do it.

The Portman and Whitfield bills would destroy the national guarantee that makes the Clean Air Act work. They would do this simply by letting any state just "opt out" of meeting national carbon standards.

Portman's budget amendment -- which may get a Senate vote this week -- is painfully clear about its polluter-protection goals: All a state need do is declare that meeting carbon standards would cost the polluters money -- that compliance would "impair investments in existing electric generating capacity."

Whitfield's bill does the same damage, letting states just walk away.

As a bonus, Whitfield's bill delays implementation of the Clean Power Plan in all states until every polluter's lawsuit against it has been rejected, including final appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court. That's a recipe for frivolous suits and slow-walking by highly paid lawyers. It's a strategy of: Let's see, how many years can we make this take?

Whitfield should remember that the Clean Air Act already provides for "staying" implementation during lawsuits -- but not for frivolous reasons. To get a stay, litigants have to prove that they are likely to win the case and that they will suffer "irreparable harm" in the meantime. Irreparable harm means more than just the cost of writing an implementation plan or studying how to clean up a plant. So stays are rare, as they should be. Whitfield's bill would just stall the Clean Power Plan with no proof of irreparable harm or likelihood of success required. What a sweetheart deal!

It's bad enough that these nasty measures would block efforts to cut carbon pollution, but they are also a dangerous precedent -- a virus that could do damage all across the Clean Air Act. What's next? Maybe let states opt out of new standards to curb soot and smog? Toxic pollution? Motor vehicle standards? Where does this stop?

The Clean Air Act is an enormous success story. Since 1970, we have cut many dangerous air pollutants by 90 percent or more, while our economy tripled in size. Millions of lives have been saved and illnesses avoided. Smog is down, acid rain has been curbed, and the ozone layer is healing.

But we still have to curb the carbon pollution that drives dangerous climate change. That is what the Clean Power Plan aims to do.

That's what the McConnell-Boehner Congress, catering to the big polluters and their profits, wants to stop. The Portman and Whitfield bills would do it. We cannot let them succeed. Our health and future are at stake.