What Is Behind the Obama Punt on Greenhouse Regs?

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, D.C., April 15, 2013 – This is pure speculation. I’m not channeling unnamed sources, but solely working from what my gut tells me about why the White House is once again putting off Environmental Protection Agency rules on carbon dioxide emissions for new electric generating plants.

Those rules, which would have made it impossible to build new coal-fired generating capacity, went into the political deep freeze last year, not long after they had been announced. The administration did its first drop back-and-kick maneuver to put the issue beyond the November 2012 elections. EPA said it would take a year to revise its plans, and would not be able to come up with rules for existing plants until it had the regs for the new plants in place.

Now, the administration has again put the rules on hold, this time without any promises about when, or if, it will again address the issue. There has been much speculation among the stakeholders and experienced observers, and a lot of it makes sense. The Clean Air Act is not well-suited to the kind of regulation the administration is contemplating, and the rules would be vulnerable to court challenge. Jeff Holmstead, who ran the EPA air office in the George W. Bush administration, told the New York Times, “There’s no way it can stand up in court. They cannot simply declare that the best technology for building a coal plant is to build a natural gas plant.”

It is also the case that EPA has received some 2 million comments on the proposed rule, which the agency must consider under the Administrative Procedures Act before it can issue a final rule. If it fails to consider the comments, it risks seeing the courts overturn the rule on procedural grounds.

But I think another calculation is at work. That calculation has a name: Joe Manchin. The West Virginia Senator has rescued the White House from an embarrassing defeat on gun legislation. Manchin, whose political career depends largely on backing from the coal industry and coal labor, has long made his opposition to the administration’s climate plans well known. Recently, POWERnews reported, he led a group of four moderate-to-conservative Democratic Senators in writing to the White House to protest the EPA plan.

When Manchin first ran for the Senate, he aired TV ads demonstrating his love of guns and distain for global warming claims. The ads featured him shooting a deer rifle into a target that was the administration’s failed cap-and-trade legislation.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)

It would be political malpractice for the White House to reward Manchin’s service in rescuing victory from the barrel of defeat on gun legislation with a swift kick to the Senator’s political groin. Indeed, during her Senate Environment Committee confirmation hearing, EPA nominee Gina McCarthy repeatedly insisted that the administration is not waging a “war on coal,” which no doubt mystified the Sierra Club, Mike Bloomberg, and many at EPA, who are.

Another factor is that Obama is not, deep down, much of an environmentalist. His statements on climate have always struck me as pro forma and passionless. He’s an urban guy. The only time he appears to get outside is on a golf course. He plays basketball for relaxation.

But it looks to me like he cares about guns far more than he cares about the climate. And he certainly cares about winning a battle he started last December after Newtown, which has political implications today, more than he cares about rules about building new coal fired plants that nobody is planning on building anyhow.