Washington — If not nearly as reviled as the Islamic State or al-Qaida, the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t get a lot of love from the Louisiana delegation to Congress.
That’s hardly surprising, considering that all but one of the six Louisiana members of the House of Representatives are Republicans, as are both of the state’s U.S. senators. Republicans generally are hostile to the agency, in keeping with their overall philosophy, according to U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, of New Orleans, the lone Democrat in the delegation.
“The Republican view is the same on everything,” he said. “They want less government and less regulation, no matter whom it harms or what happens.”
But Richmond broke ranks with the overwhelming majority of House Democrats when he voted this month for a Republican bill aimed at blunting the EPA’s proposed update of the 1972 Clean Water Act as it applies to the “waters of the United States,” or WOTUS. He was one of 24 Democrats to join a solid bloc of Republicans in passing that bill through the House 261-155. He said his vote reflected his awareness of the importance of water management issues in Louisiana and the potential widespread impact of the proposal on the state.
The WOTUS initiative is one of three major regulatory proposals the EPA, under the administration of Democratic President Barack Obama, has put forth and expects to adopt in final form this year. All three have drawn fervent opposition from Republicans in Congress, and House members and senators from Louisiana have joined in the vigorous criticism.
EPA drafted the WOTUS rule in response to what the agency calls confusion over complex U.S. Supreme Court rulings in 2001 and 2006. The proposal is an effort to clarify what lakes, rivers, streams, wetlands and other bodies of water are subject to regulation under the 1972 act, which is designed to protect the nation’s waters from pollution. The agency says the proposal does not expand its reach beyond what it regulated in the decades before the court rulings.
But Louisiana U.S. Sen. David Vitter said last year that the “rule may be one of the most significant private property grabs in U.S. history.” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, of Jefferson, characterizes the WOTUS proposal as “radical overreach,” an “extremist” regulation that would apply to “every drainage ditch, backyard pond and puddle” in the country.
Opponents have launched a “Ditch the Rule” campaign; the EPA has countered with its own “Ditch the Myth” publicity.
U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, of Lafayette, said he has heard from Louisiana state officials and farmers that the rule would “create major problems for our agricultural community and huge burdens for them.” Baton Rouge U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, who once was Gov. Bobby Jindal’s top adviser on coastal issues, said the proposal is unrealistic to apply to a state as watery as Louisiana. Besides, he said, it is unlikely to survive a court challenge if adopted; his advice to the EPA is, “Take your illegal rule and go back home.”
Fight over clean power
A second pending EPA proposal drawing fire is the Clean Power Plan, a centerpiece of Obama’s effort to address climate change. Designed to shrink the nation’s carbon footprint, it focuses on cutting releases of carbon dioxide — a compound not regulated now — from power plants, which collectively are the single largest source of carbon emissions. It would strike most heavily at coal-fired plants, including the four now operating in Louisiana.
The rule seeks to reduce the industry’s overall carbon emissions by 30 percent nationwide by 2030. But the goals vary by state: For Louisiana, the reduction target is 39 percent, in part because of the relative availability in the state of natural gas, a cleaner fuel for power generation than coal.
The EPA says the supply of electricity won’t be hampered by the rule, that the regulation actually will result in lower electricity costs in 2030 and that the economic benefits from improved health will easily offset the cost of meeting the standards.
An outside scientific study released this month said the 30 percent reduction would prevent 3,500 premature deaths a year, mostly from respiratory ailments and heart attacks.
Politicians from leading coal-mining states have spearheaded much of the opposition to the proposal. The attorney general of West Virginia has sued to block the rule, and Louisiana has joined the case on his side, along with more than a dozen other states. Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell has said complying with the proposed rule would cost Louisiana industry $4 billion to $6 billion from 2020 to 2030.
In Congress, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, has urged states to ignore the rule if it is adopted. West Virginia U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito has introduced a bill to gut the plan; her seatmate, Joe Manchin, is the only Democrat to sign on to the measure, which has attracted more than two dozen Republican co-sponsors, including U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, of Louisiana.
Cassidy’s antipathy is shared by other members of the Louisiana contingent.
“The impact of this is that it could significantly bump up electricity rates for your constituents,” Boustany said.
Graves said the Clean Power Plan is an exercise in picking winners and losers in the economy, with coal companies the biggest losers.
“This administration has repeatedly put forth proposals that lack a true understanding of the experience of these industries or of on-the-ground conditions,” he said. “They’re just not realistic.”
Richmond is all for boosting the natural gas industry, but he’s concerned about the impact of the plan on the Louisiana economy.
“We do have a large presence of coal” in power generation in Louisiana, he said. Of the plan, he said, “I don’t think everybody will be happy, which may mean it’s a decent compromise.”
The EPA for years has regulated ozone, the subject of the third pending rule-making proposal, and ozone levels have dropped by a third since 1980. A key component of smog, ozone forms in the air when the sun heats up certain gases emitted by motor vehicles, factories and power plants.
States are required to develop plans for complying with the EPA standards, and the plans are managed on a county-by-county (or parish-by-parish) basis. Should a parish fail to meet the standards, it could face restrictions on highway construction or development.
The agency is supposed to review its ozone standard every five years, but the current one, of 75 parts per billion, hasn’t been updated since 2008. The EPA is proposing a standard of 65 to 70 ppb, which it says most areas will meet by 2025 via programs already underway (although some areas don’t even meet the existing standard). Adoption of the proposed Clean Power Plan will help even more, the agency says.
Ozone most affects children, the elderly and people with asthma or other respiratory ailments. The EPA says the stricter standard will yield financial gains from improved health that will considerably outweigh the cost of complying with the regulation.
A stricter rule likely would force industry to install costly equipment to cut emissions; the National Association of Manufacturers brands the proposal as “the most expensive regulation ever imposed on the American public.”
Cassidy filed a budget amendment earlier this year to block the proposed rule, although it was withdrawn during a marathon Senate “vote-a-rama” session on the spending plan. If the lower standard is adopted, Cassidy said, “We’re going to lose jobs. Plants will close and move overseas, where there are fewer environmental standards.”
And Cassidy, a physician, said that carries its own health costs.
“Holistically, you can say that when people lose work, they become less healthy,” he said. “If we’re really concerned about health, there’s a societal cost of regulations, and that societal cost is far more deleterious than that associated with increased ozone levels.”
‘Growth in Jeopardy’
Vitter held a series of briefings across Louisiana in 2014 on the ozone proposal. The one in Baton Rouge, which Vitter bannered as “Louisiana Jobs and Economic Growth in Jeopardy: How EPA’s Upcoming Ozone Standards Will Harm Our State,” was attended by Cassidy, then a congressman.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, the Democratic incumbent Cassidy would defeat in the 2014 fall election, didn’t show up but issued a statement: “While it is important that we continue to test our air quality, we must take extra steps to ensure we are not burdening state and local agencies and are not imposing billions more in costs on to the back of America’s manufacturing, energy, industrial and transportation sectors.”
Members of the delegation, Democratic and Republican, acknowledge the value of environmental protection but say that’s not the only consideration they take into account.
“The EPA plays an important role,” Richmond said, “but I do think, like any government agency, sometimes their focus is either laser-focus or blinders-on.
“We don’t have that luxury in Louisiana,” where the economy depends heavily on the oil, gas and chemical industries, Richmond said. “I don’t get to wear those same blinders. We have to balance economic development, quality of life and environmental protection.”
The state has put together an impressive record of reconciling those kinds of potentially conflicting interests, Boustany said — one that others could learn from.
“In Louisiana, we have a long history of how to balance good economic policy, good environmental policy and good energy policy,” he said.
It’s the Obama administration that’s “out of whack” when it comes to the EPA initiatives, according to Graves, the former head of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
“I think that they lack the expertise to truly understand the implications of those proposals,” he said. “I think this is a raw and crude environmental agenda.
“This is all about a political agenda.”
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