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Coal's future debated at confirmation hearing for EPA nominee

The future of coal as a source of electric power in the United States was a dominant theme Thursday as President Barack Obama’s choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency faced her confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Although nominee Gina McCarthy seems likely to be confirmed, the hearing was a chance for Republican senators to complain about the economic impact of EPA regulations, especially on coal producers. It was also a chance for Democratic senators to argue that the costs of air pollution and climate change were the bigger dangers. 

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., mentioned to McCarthy the asthmatic children in his state who were unable to go to summer camp, while Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., cited forest fires as well as acidification of the oceans affecting oyster production in his state as some of the costly climate change effects.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Gina McCarthy testifies before a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on her nomination to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency on Capitol Hill in Washington April 11, 2013.

Republicans have deep misgivings about the power Congress has delegated to the EPA and the expansion of that power by court rulings, especially the landmark 2007 Supreme Court decision that carbon dioxide and other gases are pollutants that can be regulated under the Clean Air Act. Depending on how McCarthy administers EPA regulations and on court challenges to them, the energy playing field could be further tilted in favor of newly abundant domestic natural gas as a source of electric power -- and against coal.

Even before McCarthy sat down at the witness table, Republican Sen. John Barrasso – who represents the state which produces 40 percent of American coal, Wyoming – fired a warning shot in Thursday morning’s Wall Street Journal, charging that “As head of the EPA's office on air quality since 2009, Ms. McCarthy has been a leader in the administration's war on fossil fuels.” Barrasso continued his criticism of the EPA regulations’ impact on coal at the hearing, telling McCarthy that “your extreme emission rules that you’ve imposed on U.S. power stations are forcing coal companies to make up for lost domestic customers by exporting more to countries in Asia.”

Barrasso said the EPA has urged the Army Corps of Engineers to take into account the greenhouse gas impact of allowing coal to be shipped overseas from West Coast ports. “Not only have you blocked the use of coal in power plants domestically, but now you’re recommending that an American product not be able to be shipped and sold overseas,” he complained. 

“I want to thank Sen. Barrasso,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I- Vermont, after the Wyoming Republican finished his statement. “He made it very clear what this whole discussion is about…. It is a debate about global warming and whether or not we are going to listen to the leading scientists of this country who are telling us that global warming is the most serious planetary crisis that we and the global community face....” 

When Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., reminded McCarthy that at her 2009 confirmation hearing she’d said that coal was a vital natural resource and asked her whether she’d changed her mind on that, she calmly replied, “Not at all, senator.”

On Tuesday energy secretary nominee Ernest Moniz also lent rhetorical support to coal, at his confirmation hearing, saying that “we see coal as being a continuing, major part of the energy supply in the United States, and certainly, in the world.”

He said if researchers could devise a way to store large amounts of CO2 and “reduce the cost of carbon capture dramatically,” then  coal would be “very, very competitive” with other energy sources,

At her hearing Thursday, McCarthy did her best to mollify Republican senators, at one point pledging to Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., that she would “build a more trusting relationship” and continually promising that “I’m more than happy to work with you” and “I’m more than happy to go back and look at it” when a GOP senator made a particular complaint about an EPA rule.

But among Republicans, the feeling is that EPA has become impossibly remote, powerful and inscrutable. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., told McCarthy the agency has “extraordinary power over Americans, with the power to impact their lives in ways I don’t think Congress contemplated when they authorized this agency or contemplated when it passed the Clean Air Act” in 1970.

But EPA’s regulatory impact is far wider than on coal, as Sessions illustrated when he descended with McCarthy into the byzantine world of EPA regulations on brick and ceramic manufacturing – the “Brick MACT (Maximum Achievable Control Technology)” rule – which spawned a litigation saga that has been playing out for more than a dozen years. A Sierra Club lawsuit led the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to order EPA to rewrite its rules for brick makers. Under a consent decree EPA must come up with final rules by the summer of 2014.

In questioning McCarthy, Sessions pleaded the cause of small Alabama brick firms that have struggled to cope with the cost of EPA rules, both before the 2007 court decision and after. McCarthy promised Sessions that she would be “incredibly sensitive” to the effect of the brick regulations on small brick manufacturers.

As with bricks, so too with coal and climate change. With Congress highly unlikely to enact new laws on carbon dioxide and other emissions, everyone at Thursday’s hearing knew the battles ahead would be fought in the courts.