Highlighting a sharp division within the public power community, two senior House Democrats blasted the American Public Power Association for endorsing Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s effort to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its Clean Air Act authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, with the lawmakers saying they have been informed that “numerous” APPA members oppose the endorsement.

In a letter to APPA President and Chief Executive Officer Mark Crisson, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who chairs the panel’s energy and environment subcommittee, took Crisson to task for telling Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that APPA supports a Murkowski (R-Alaska) resolution that would nullify EPA’s December finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare.

The endangerment finding responds to a landmark 2007 Supreme Court ruling that carbon dioxide (CO2) is a pollutant under the Clean Air Act and that EPA must regulate motor vehicle emissions of the heat-trapping gas if it finds CO2 endangers public health and welfare. EPA regulation of motor vehicle emissions, in turn, would trigger requirements under the statute to regulate emissions from power plants and other large stationary sources.

Crisson’s letter came in the midst of APPA’s annual legislative rally, in which hundreds of APPA members come to Washington to discuss public policy and to lobby lawmakers. Public power sources said that a decision to support Murkowski’s resolution (S.J.RES.26), which is expected to come to the Senate floor for a vote next month [April], was shared with some but not all of APPA’s members.

Some APPA members who did not know of the letter and/or did not support it then were confronted by Democrats angered by APPA’s formal opposition to EPA’s endangerment finding, which the agency finalized in December.

Sources said that the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), other California municipal utilities and public utilities throughout the Northwest oppose APPA’s endorsement of Murkowski’s resolution. SMUD did not respond to requests for comment.

In their letter to Crisson, Waxman and Markey, authors of comprehensive climate and energy legislation (H.R. 2454) that narrowly cleared the House in June, expressed “disappointment” with APPA’s position on the EPA finding.

“We are also deeply concerned that APPA appears to be actively misinforming its members about this issue,” said the Democrats. “If the EPA’s scientific findings were reversed, as APPA proposes, then EPA would be unable to finalize proposed tailpipe standards for automobiles to cut carbon pollution and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”

Waxman and Markey noted that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, in a letter to Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), had asserted that Murkowski’s resolution would prevent the motor vehicle rules from going forward. However, the lawmakers said that APPA in an e-mail to its members had said Jackson’s opinion “remains a point of debate between the lawyers” studying the likely legal effect of Murkowski’s resolution.

“APPA’s staff knows this is not the case, because they have informed our staff that APPA has reviewed Administrator Jackson’s February 22, 2010, letter to Sen. Rockefeller,” the Democrats said.

The Democrats asked Crisson to respond by March 3, and to “clarify what exactly APPA’s position is on EPA’s scientific finding. If APPA disputes the validity of the EPA finding, please provide the scientific basis for this dispute. If APPA does not dispute the scientific validity of the EPA finding, please explain why APPA is urging U.S. senators to ‘disapprove’ of EPA’s science when APPA has no bases for disputing it.”

Somewhat lost in the messy public spat is the fact that APPA has been on record at least since 2007 in opposing using Clean Air Act regulations to confront climate change, and that the association also is on record in supporting a legislative response to global warming.

In addition, APPA’s formal public comments on an earlier version of EPA’s endangerment ripped the proposal, so it should come as no surprise that the association would likely oppose the finding.

Congressional Democratic staff, however, argued that it was poor politics for APPA to embrace Murkowski’s attack on EPA’s authority and that a wiser course would have been to insist on language in Senate climate legislation being developed by Sens. John Kerry, Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) that would restrict EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions once legislatively imposed emission constraints are in place. Such language is included in H.R. 2454, but many utilities, including municipals, think it does not go far enough.

APPA spokesman Nick Braden declined to discuss the controversy until the association formally responds to the Waxman-Markey letter.

“What we can say is that with more than 2,000 members, we are rarely in unanimity on anything,” Braden told The Energy Daily. “But because CO2 is a regional issue, some members do not support our position. But an extremely strong majority does support it.”

—Chris Holly (cholly@accessintel.com) is a reporter for COAL POWER’s sister publication, The Energy Daily, where this article originally appeared.