EPA chief Gina McCarthy issued a strong defense of controversial proposed curbs on carbon emissions from power plants, telling a packed Senate hearing Wednesday the agency talked to all sides in the debate before issuing its draft recommendations.
"This is the most respectful rule at the federal level that I have ever been involved in," the Environmental Protection Agency administrator told the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, citing what she said was the flexibility given to the states to design their own plans to reduce carbon emissions 30 percent by 2030.
But Republicans and many in the business community have sharply criticized both the substance of the new rules and the authority of the EPA to issue the regulation. Opponents warn the rule could cripple the U.S. economy and raise electricity bills while having only a negligible effect on climate change and the environment.
Sen. Roger Wicker, Mississippi Republican, called the proposed rule, now out for public comment, "EPA's most blatant overreach thus far," and accused President Obama of carrying out a "war on coal" that will hurt states like Mississippi that are heavily dependent on the fuel.
The EPA's proposals are up for public comments for 120 days, until Oct. 16. Republican lawmakers and industry groups are seeking to extend the comment period another 60 days.
Some conservatives argue that the EPA's research is questionable because they conducted a cost-benefit analysis on a global scale, rather that on a state basis.
Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, the ranking Republican on the Senate committee, said that without a domestic cost-benefit analysis, the EPA's estimate for environmental improvements were merely helping other countries at the expense of the U.S. economy.
Ms. McCarthy told Mr. Vitter that the agency followed the proper legal procedure in conducting its analysis but that the EPA did not conduct a state-by-state domestic analysis.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with the Democrats, scolded Republicans for ignoring what he called scientific proof of climate change caused by humans.
"For the first time to the best of my knowledge, we have a major political party which by and large is rejecting what the majority of the scientific community is saying," he said.
Committee members also argued over the EPA's authority to enforce such a regulation and the credibility of the research that led the agency to draw up the proposed rules.
Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican, pointed out that the agency based its research on studies done by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading environmental lobbying group.
Mr. Barrasso claimed that the EPA refused to meet with families negatively affected by the proposals, "all because EPA has decided to promote a rule drafted behind closed doors by an elite group of lawyers and lobbyists."
But Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat and Committee Chair, applauded Ms. McCarthy for working so closely with the NRDC and said that the EPA's authority on the regulations should not even be up for discussion.
"EPA does have the authority," Mrs. Boxer said. "I don't know why we have to fight about things that have been settled three times by the Supreme Court."
Citing a letter written by the West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, Mr. Wicker argued that under the Clean Air Act the EPA is prohibited from regulating air pollutants in existing power plants that are already being regulated under a different section of the same act.
When asked about the letter, Ms. McCarthy said that in her opinion the legal argument was flawed.
Sen. Tom Carper, Delaware Democrat, defended the EPA's decision and said that he believed the agency was effectively trying to strike a balance between clean environmental goals and economic strength.
In one of her most extended public discussions to date of the new emissions mandates issued June 2, Ms. McCarthy argued that the health and environmental benefits outweighed the costs.
"The first year that these standards go into effect will avoid up to 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks," she said. "For soot and smog reduction alone, for every dollar we invest, families will see seven dollars in health benefits."
Ms. McCarthy added that the agency predicts that electricity costs will actually decrease by 2030, thanks to new energy-saving technological innovations sparked by the mandates.
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