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Is the administration at odds with itself over pollution regulation?


As the prospects for cap-and-trade dim in the Senate, attention is focusing on the Environmental Protection Agency, which has been slowly positioning itself to regulate carbon as a pollutant in the event that the Congress doesn't act. The EPA, of course, isn't doing this in a vacuum. It seemed to be official government policy. OMB Director Peter Orszag wrote a blog post heralding the endangerment finding that gave the EPA the power to regulate carbon and even wrote another to tamp down on rumors that the OMB disagreed with the move. But now the Wall Street Journal reports that Cass Sunstein, who works in Orszag's shop, is spooking environmental groups:

The office of President Barack Obama's regulatory czar, Cass Sunstein, has held nearly 20 meetings with industry groups since October to discuss the potential impact of proposed EPA rules to treat coal ash and other coal byproducts as hazardous waste, according to White House records. Mr. Sunstein directs the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Watchdog groups say it is unusual for the OMB to insert itself so prominently, and so early, into the process. In this case, the EPA has yet to publish its proposed new regulations for coal ash, a step that would then open the door to public comment and hearings.

"We think 250 to 350 coal units could be shut down, in an extreme scenario, and drive up the cost of electricity," said Bryan Hannegan, president of an energy think tank. That, of course, is the sort of thing the EPA would want to have happen if it were going to attack carbon emissions. That it's being seen as a major drawback in this case isn't encouraging.

Photo credit: AP Photo/John McConnico.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 12, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change  
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Next: Previewing the final health-care bill


I know this blog is aimed at the sensational political side but there are more basic things at work here. The competition between reliability and validity. Conservatives want to hone reliability which implies limited or no change to the system; just speed up the pump or reduce expectation. Progressives want to use more valid solutions which implies bigger changes; chuck the pump and try a siphon 'cause we can't get what we need from the old pump. We are at a point where the old model has been honed and tweek'd and it's still not giving the result we want. We need a new model and we will get one. History shows when things get bad enough, change comes. In the meantime, the conservatives are resisting with all their might.

Posted by: BertEisenstein | January 12, 2010 9:34 AM | Report abuse

Shouldn’t Sunstein and OIRA focus on achieving the cheapest marginal pollution reductions, rather than prioritizing plant closures or more expensive energy as an intrinsic goal? Rather, if they try to avoid those outcomes while improving air quality, don’t they ensure that the ensuing regs have more buy in from consumer and industry groups?

Posted by: dgs290 | January 12, 2010 9:50 AM | Report abuse

There is not one chance in a trillion that EPA will issue regs or Congress will enact legislation that will have the effect of shutting down 250 to 350 coal units.

Posted by: ostap666 | January 12, 2010 10:16 AM | Report abuse

From the sounds of it, a high-level deputy of President Obama is holding meetings, which should give a clear signal to Congress that the White House is serious about something being done by hook or by crook. It makes sense to vet all the industry concerns now, so if some of the issues are palatable, then include them and call it bipartisan if the purely regulatory route is the final one.

From Mr. Bryan Hannegan's profile at his employer EPRI: "Prior to joining EPRI in September 2006, Hannegan served in a dual capacity as the Chief of Staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), and as an acting Special Assistant to the President for Economic Policy."

Not to put too fine a point on this, but a fomer Bush operative and the WSJ is scaring up concern by making outrageous statements about reforms being pushed by the Obama Administration and the Democratic Congress? Perhaps the Democrats should start talking about a way they can get carbon regulation through the reconciliation process.

Posted by: Jaycal | January 12, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

These are two totally separate issues and rulemakings. The issue in the article, the fly ash rule, concerns only the solid ash byproduct of coal-burning utilities which is stored in impoundments. This was the stuff that spilled all over Tennessee last year. The meetings/rulemaking in the article has absolutely nothing to do with the series of rulemakings that will be required for the EPA to directly regulate the gaseous emissions of carbon dioxide from stationary sources. Now perhaps the administration sees this as an indirect way to shut down a few coal plants (and thus their emissions), but it is not the direct regulation of those emissions under the Clean Air Act that has been at issue.

Posted by: chinesebandits | January 12, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

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