- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2015

The gentle sea cow is the latest draftee in the nation’s ongoing “war on coal.”

Congressional Republicans have rushed to the manatee’s defense in an effort to slow new carbon emissions regulations, while the Obama administration is rejecting claims its forthcoming rules on coal-fired power plants will pose a direct threat to the Florida habitat of the endangered bulbous marine mammals.

Republicans say the Environmental Protection Agency erred by not consulting with the Fish and Wildlife Service in designing its so-called Clean Power Plan because the proposal almost surely will force the closure of coal-fired power plants and subsequently reduce the warm water Florida’s manatees need to survive during cold winter months. Warm-water discharge from the plant becomes home to hundreds of manatees for a roughly six-month stretch each winter.

Federal law requires that the Fish and Wildlife Service be consulted on any regulation that could affect an endangered species, but administration officials admitted last week there has been no such consultation on the EPA’s carbon rules.

Warm-water discharge from Florida’s Big Bend Power Station, a coal-fired plant on Tampa Bay, attracts so many West Indian manatees to the waters beside the plant that owner TECO Energy, parent company of Tampa Electric, in 1986 opened a “Manatee Viewing Center,” complete with observation platforms and a self-guided nature walk, for tourists to observe the animals. Force the plant out of business, critics warn, and the manatees will be forced to find new waters to graze in.

The EPA plan is the centerpiece of President Obama’s broader climate change agenda and is aimed at reducing the amount of electricity generated by coal.

The plan already is being challenged in court, but Republicans now also see an opportunity to slow the regulations by zeroing in on their impact on the gentle, slow-moving manatees, one of the most popular and photogenic symbols of the biodiversity of the Florida coast. GOP critics say the administration is ignoring the law in order to implement its carbon plan as quickly as possible.

“This is troubling for the manatee, but even more disturbing is the possibility that the Obama administration would strategically disregard the law when it serves their interests or the president’s legacy. The committee will certainly be following up on these unanswered questions,” said Julia Bell, press secretary for the House Committee on Natural Resources.

Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, Utah Republican, first raised the issue at a House hearing last week with Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. Mr. Ashe admitted his agency has not worked with the EPA on the carbon plan nor been consulted about its potential impacts on manatees or other endangered species.

Committee sources say Mr. Bishop will pressure the EPA to address the manatee issue before moving ahead with its proposal. The final version of the Clean Power Plan is due out this summer.

But the agency insists it would not be responsible for any specific plant closure or potential impact on manatees. The Clean Power Plan, the EPA says, allows states to develop their own plans for meeting emissions-reduction targets, meaning those states will determine whether coal-fired plants are shuttered.

“Our proposal does not require the closure of any coal plants. It’s up to states to come up with their own plans for how to reduce their carbon pollution,” the EPA said in a statement.

Following Mr. Ashe’s testimony last week, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to clarify his remarks and said that while the agency should be consulted on any power plant’s impact on an endangered species, it does not need to offer input on the EPA’s broader carbon plan.

Still, the EPA plan may have a direct impact on Big Bend operations moving forward.

Tampa Electric spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs told McClatchy last week that of the four units at the Big Bend station, “one or more” could be closed over the next decade because of the EPA regulations.

But environmentalists argue that enlisting manatees as a reason for slowing the carbon regulations is misguided and that developing new warm-water homes for the endangered species can happen alongside new pollution restrictions.

“Plans to replace these warm-water refuges have been discussed for years,” said Jacki Lopez, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Clean air and manatee conservation are not mutually exclusive.”

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