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GOP members of Congress tie state's reliance on coal to debate over climate change, EPA

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: It was high noon on a sunny day when about two dozen environmentalists – one of them holding a cardboard “flat Earth” -- gathered recently outside the St. Louis County office of U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner to protest her stance on climate change.

In particular, the Missouri chapter of the Sierra Club is highlighting a recent letter that the first-term member of Congress sent to a constituent, in which Wagner wrote that the theory that humans are responsible for the planet’s recent temperature increase is “inconsistent and unsound science.”

Later in the letter, Wagner, R-Ballwin, asserted that “there has been no global warming trend in more than 15 years.”

The protesters said their aim was to make it clear that climate change is real. They pointed out that most scientists – as well as government agencies, including the Defense Department – accept that view and are focusing now on how to cope with climate change.

Those who challenge climate change, the protesters said, were in the same league as counterparts centuries earlier who believed the Earth was flat.

The Sierra Club added in a statement that it was particularly concerned that Wagner “has signed a pledge to not fund climate change-related legislation and she co-sponsored a resolution that would forbid sending money to the United Nations and a related scientific body to study climate change.”

A spokesman for Wagner said “she stands by her statements.’’ But he emphasized that she is “happy to meet with everyone” to discuss the issue. In the case of last week’s protest, for example, environmentalists met briefly with her district director to convey their concerns.

The protest came as Wagner and other Republican members of Missouri’s congressional delegation are becoming more vocal in their opposition to proposed EPA regulations that could affect states like Missouri that rely heavily on coal for energy production.

The carbon emissions from the worldwide burning of coal, many scientists believe, have been a factor in climate change.

GOP members of Congress sign letter to EPA

While there are some differences, Wagner’s positions on the EPA -- and the impact of human activities such as carbon emissions on climate change -- generally seem to parallel those of U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and the other GOP members of Congress from Missouri.

The seven Republicans make up more than two-thirds of Missouri’s 10-person House and Senate delegation. The three Democrats – Sen. Claire McCaskill and U.S. Reps. William Lacy Clay Jr. of St. Louis and Emanuel Cleaver of Kansas City – have not been nearly as vocal on the topic, although local Sierra Club officials say all three at least acknowledge the problem of climate change, and the human role.

In a letter sent May 20 to President Barack Obama, Blunt, Wagner and the state’s five other Republican U.S. House members expressed “continued concern” about the EPA’s “plans to issue greenhouse gas (GHG) new source performance standard regulations for new fossil fuel-based electric generating sources.”

They wrote: “The proposed rule will set an unprecedented standard under the Clean Air Act, and we urge you to consider an alternative approach to address GHG emissions in a way that will not harm our economy or endanger our electricity supply.

“If adopted, the proposed EPA rule will effectively ban new coal-fired power plants from being built. By EPA’s own admission, the rule as proposed would increase the cost of electricity generated from a coal plant by 80 percent. Already, existing EPA regulations will prevent current sources from making upgrades to improve efficiency and allow for more generation with fewer emissions. This two-pronged offense to eliminate the use of coal in this country sets us on a dangerous path as a nation, threatening our economy and killing jobs.”

The letter continued, “Adding 80 percent to the cost of electricity would significantly hurt states like Missouri, which is heavily reliant on coal for power. Our state uses coal to power 82 percent of our electricity, and we enjoy some of the most reliable and affordable power in the nation.”

Missouri's reliance on coal for energy

The Missouri lawmakers’ letter referred to a proposed regulation first outlined a year ago but still under review by the EPA that would limit greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants.

Reflecting the proposal’s controversy, the EPA is still reviewing the 2 million comments it has received about it.

The initial version of the proposed rule – now under review – would limit emissions of new power plants to no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour of electricity produced.

The average U.S. natural gas plant, which emits 800 to 850 pounds of carbon dioxide a megawatt, would meet that standard. Coal-fired plants, however, emit an average of 1,768 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt.

Ameren and other utilities have objected to the restrictions, and – given congressional concerns – many analysts believe that the EPA eventually will tweak the rule in a way that it would be able to withstand an expected court challenge from utilities and manufacturing groups.

The Washington Post has reported that one possible change would be to set up a separate standard for coal-fired power plants, as opposed to gas-fired plants.

In their letter, the Missouri lawmakers urged Obama to ask the EPA “to amend the proposed rule to exercise the option available to the agency for differentiating standards based on fuel type and to establish supercritical coal generation technology as the performance standard for new coal-based electricity. Such an amendment will create new jobs and strengthen the economy through a technology-based approach toward reducing carbon dioxide emissions.”

Defending the letter on the EPA’s new source rules for power plants, Blunt told reporters in late May that regulations to reduce emissions must be reasonable.

“The idea that we wouldn’t use coal as a resource is, I think, a foolish idea,” Blunt said. “The idea that you can’t add to a plant, say add natural gas to a plant without bringing the entire plant up to today’s building specifications [is] equally foolish.”

When acting EPA administrator Bob Perciasepe testified recently before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Blunt pressed him on the rule, asking if there is “any commercially viable way” for coal-fired power plants to meet the proposed sequestration rules.

“And his answer was no,” Blunt recalled. “He said the component parts were out there and nobody was able to quite figure out how to put them together yet.

“If a rule like that went forward, for the first time ever EPA would have a rule that the only logical implementation of the rule would be to put an entire industry out of business. I’m not for that.”

Asserting that such EPA regulations “need to make sense,” Blunt said the letter from Missouri GOP lawmakers asks Obama to instruct the EPA to use “a technology-based approach to reduce carbon emissions” that is possible to achieve.

“Our letter basically says, Come up with a rule that somebody could comply with,” said Blunt. “That doesn’t sound like an unreasonable thing, particularly for a state that’s still over 80 percent dependent on coal for its utilities.”

Blunt's 'hold' on EPA nominee

Blunt has been a persistent critic of the EPA.  A couple of years ago, he called then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson the “worst” in the agency’s history – even though a former administrator had been held in contempt of Congress.

On March 18, Blunt placed a “hold” on the nomination of Gina McCarthy to head the EPA – a hold that he declined to withdraw after meeting privately with McCarthy on May 23.  Blunt said his reason for the hold was to pressure the EPA to agree with the Army Corps of Engineers about some “facts” in the environmental impact statement for the proposed St. John’s Bayou/New Madrid Floodway levee project in southeast Missouri.

But Blunt’s hold dovetails with a much wider Senate Republican strategy on McCarthy, including outright opposition by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.,to try to delay or stop a vote on her nomination.

The overriding GOP issue, environmental groups say, is McCarthy’s work over the last four years as the head of EPA’s air pollution regulation efforts. Those regulations, unpopular among many Republicans, utility firms and some manufacturers, are part of the Obama administration's attempt to contain emissions of toxic mercury from power plants as well as emissions of gases that affect the global climate.

After meeting with McCarthy on May 23, Blunt said he had a “frank and disappointing” discussion with the nominee.

“I intend to talk to the White House more directly about who is in charge because I’m troubled by the fact the administration doesn’t appear to understand how to manage the agencies it oversees,” Blunt said.

Luetkemeyer and Chamois power plant

Another persistent delegation critic of the EPA has been U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth.

He wrote to the agency in February to express his concern about the impact that the closure of the Central Electric Power Cooperative power plant in Chamois would have on employees and local communities. He asked the EPA not to enforce environmental regulations on the plant.

“Unfortunately, the actions by the EPA as it relates to the Central Electric Power Plant in Chamois is another tragic example of that,” said Luetkemeyer, who grew up in nearby Miller County.

“After hearing from the folks in Chamois, it is clear they are victims of overreaching federal regulations that will have a devastating impact not only on these fine folks but also on the nearby communities and thousands of consumers who have benefitted from the plant for more than 60 years.”

In the letter to EPA, Luetkemeyer noted that between 2015 and 2018, it would cost about $14 million for the plant to meet EPA environmental requirements, including infrastrucure enhancements related to the delivery of coal to the plant. Luetkemeyer said that if EPA fails to back off the costly requirements, the Chamois plant could be closed by the end of the year.

While Luetkemeyer and many other lawmakers continue to protest tougher regulations on emissions, environmental groups are stepping up their criticism. They say current efforts to limit the EPA's reach -- following the failure of Congress in 2010 to approve "cap and trade" legislation to limit emissions -- show that Congress is refusing to face up to a global problem.

Missouri Sierra Club state director John Hickey said that the Republican stance contrasts sharply with the approach of the state's Democratic members of Congress.  The group met earlier this year with Clay and Cleaver, Hickey said, and both "recognize that climate change is human caused, and have been supportive of legislation to address the problem.'

McCaskill concurs, although she has taken issue with some environmentalists' proposed actions, with the senator acknowledging Missouri's dependence on coal. Hickey said that the senator, at least, "does not deny that climate change is human caused" and points to her stance detailed on her website.

Wagner, said Hickey, "stands out because she denies that climate change is human caused, despite over 97 percent of climate scientists finding that it is."

At the recent protest outside Wagner’s district office, demonstrator Madeline Buthod was dressed as a physician and holding a cigarette. She said her getup was to illustrate how climate-change deniers were similar to those a few decades ago who used to deny that cigarette smoking could cause cancer.

Buthod added that her concern was personal as well as political: “As a mother of two young children, it really concerns me that the Earth is heating up.”

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.