Given the chance to speak face-to-face with an Environmental Protection Agency assistant administrator about the agency’s much-debated Clean Power Plan, there are many questions a lawmaker could ask.
If, say, a state decided to replace some of its coal-fired plants with natural gas and renewables, how would the EPA make sure that coal miners won’t be out of a job? Or, if the plan results in less coal use across the country, how will the EPA ensure the reliability of the U.S. electricity system? Exactly how much flexibility will states be given while creating their own plans to meet the greenhouse gas emission reductions goals the EPA has set out for them? Does the plan give states enough time to comply?
Those types of questions, however, did not dominate Wednesday’s meeting of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which held a hearing to question EPA Acting Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation Janet McCabe about the agency’s proposed regulations limiting carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. Instead, many of the questions took the form of statements focused on the reality of human-caused climate change, and whether it was worthwhile to tackle the problem.
Perhaps the most notable statement came from Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), who began his questioning by casting doubt on data from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showing 2014 to be the hottest year on record. Citing a scene from the (mostly) fictional movie “The King’s Speech,” Wicker said that the data should not necessarily be trusted.
“The speech therapist Lionel Logue is talking to King George, and one of the things Lionel says is, ‘You’ve got to quit smoking.’ And King George says, ‘My doctors told me smoke relaxes the throat,” Wicker said. “I would just observe that these were the smartest people in Britain at the time, and they were giving the King of England the exactly the wrong advice about what he should be doing with regard to smoking. It is possibly conceivable that the smartest people of our time might be wrong and that the very learned and educated contrarians on the issue of climate change will turn out to be vindicated in the end.”
Committee chairman Jim Inhofe (R-OK), a man who literally wrote a book calling climate change “the greatest hoax,” also used his time to question the science of human-caused climate change. “You don’t have science on your side,” he said. “You keep saying science is settled; you have the assumption that that is the case. That is not the case.”
Of the climate scientists who are actively publishing research, 97 percent agree that humans cause climate change. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — which draws on the knowledge of almost 800 climate experts across the globe — says it is at least 95 percent likely that human activities are the main cause of atmospheric and ocean warming since the 1950s.
Despite his disagreement with the existence of climate change, however, Inhofe also made statements questioning whether American efforts to reduce carbon emissions would be effective in fighting it. He fixated on China’s carbon emissions, insisting that U.S. regulations would not do anything to fight global warming while China is still increasing its emissions.
“Are you operating on some kind of delusion that China is going to change their behavior?” Inhofe asked McCabe, who responded by citing the historic deal President Obama reached with China in November to have the country cut its carbon emissions 26 to 28 percent below their 2005 levels by 2025, and get 20 percent of its energy from non-fossil-fuel sources by 2030.
It was not just Republican lawmakers who made general statements about climate change instead of questioning McCabe about the Clean Power Plan. Outspoken climate hawk Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), for example, asked no questions, but said he supported the rule and lambasted his colleagues for rejecting climate science. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-DE) used his time to explain why tackling climate change is important, asking McCabe whether an average global temperature rise above 2 degrees Celsius is “something we should be concerned about.” McCabe’s response: “Absolutely.”
The hearing was not all for naught. As SNL Energy’s Eric Wolff noted on Twitter, Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) asked pointed questions about specific coal-fired plants in his state, expressing concern about those plants’ ability to operate in the wake of the regulations, and their importance to the electricity needs of South Dakota and the surrounding states. And Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) asked about how her state’s power plants could be expected to achieve the heat rate EPA has required them to achieve under the proposed rule, considering many officials in Nebraska have said those rates are impossible.
McCabe responded to both Senators by assuring them the Clean Power Plan has not yet been finalized, and that their considerations — especially ones regarding factual errors about whether certain power plants can feasibly meet emissions reductions goals — would be taken seriously in forming the final rule.
At least for Fischer, that answer seemed satisfactory enough.
“Sometimes what we hear from EPA is that things are pretty well set … [and] we haven’t felt that there will be much accommodation to the concerns that we have,” Fischer said. “So you give me some hope here, and I hope you will follow through with that.”