After the demise this week of a Senate bid to kill U.S. EPA’s mercury regulations for power plants, the utility sector has been left wondering whether there will be a Plan B for changing the rule that it has blamed for the closure of several coal-fired power plants around the country.
The chances for a second try in Congress appear to be slim.
Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark) have proposed a bill that would delay implementation of the co-called Utility MACT rule until 2018, and some of the moderate Democrats who voted against Sen. James Inhofe’s (R-Okla.) resolution of disapproval this week have expressed an interest in it.
But unlike Inhofe’s measure, the bill might not even come to the Senate floor for a vote. It is unlikely it would be vetted by the Environment and Public Works Committee, headed by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). It might be offered as an amendment to another bill but would need 60 votes to be adopted.
And all that assumes it is ever introduced at all. Alexander and Pryor say they first plan to send a letter to President Obama asking him to issue an executive order providing the entire U.S power sector with an additional two years to comply with the rules.
An aide to Alexander said the senators expected to write to Obama next week.
But both environmentalists and die-hard coal advocates — in a rare moment of comity — say the Clean Air Act would not allow Obama to comply with that request, even if he wanted to.
“The president would not have the authority to approve a blanket two-year extension without meeting the statutory criteria and conditions,” said John Walke, clean air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. These include a determination that the rule is not technologically feasible in the time allotted and that requiring power plants to meet the statutory deadline would cause a national security risk.
A Republican aide on the Environment and Public Works Committee said that if Obama tried to assume the authority Pryor and Alexander ascribe to him, it would only lead to litigation and increased uncertainty for utilities.
“The Clean Air Act does not provide for this kind of idea of an executive order extending the compliance time frames,” he said. “It is fanciful.”
Nor is there agreement that the three-year delay would be an improvement over the status quo.