Open Spaces
6:05 pm
Fri June 27, 2014

Wyoming Coal Versus The Courts

This week’s Supreme Court ruling on the EPA and its ability to regulate carbon is a mixed bag for Wyoming officials and energy producers. It sets the stakes even higher for Republicans in the state who are determined to derail a pending EPA rule on climate change.  

Like most all things here in Washington these days, the recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of the EPA is being read along party lines. But Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi says it’s not just partisanship. He says your opinion also hinges on where you’re reading.

“It depends on whether you’re reading the eastern papers or the western papers.”

Standing outside the Senate floor, Enzi explained there was a difference in coverage. 

“Eastern papers seem to think that they gave the EPA authority to regulate just about anything they wanted to. The western reports on it point out that there were just a very closely delineated set of pollutants which did not include CO2 because that’s so common in the atmosphere.”

Here it is in plain English: The high Court reaffirmed its previous rulings giving the EPA authority to regulate green house gas emissions. But justices also scolded the agency, writing that executive branch bureaucrats can’t rewrite or fill in laws on a whim, even if well intentioned, they need Congress to rewrite the law if they want more authority to tackle contemporary problems, like climate change. Enzi sees that section as a major victory for Wyoming energy producers.

“The clear message that they sent in that was that they can’t rewrite laws themselves that we’re the ones in charge, Congress is the ones in charge of writing the laws, and that they have to abide by those laws even if they don’t think they’re firm enough or stern enough or well-defined enough.”

While both sides agree this ruling was limited, Republicans are hoping it foreshadows the court battle that’s sure to come over the newly unveiled EPA rule that’s expected to halt the construction of new coal-fired power plants. Wyoming Senator John Barrasso says the writing is on the wall for administration officials.

“Well I think the words to show that the EPA doesn’t have the kind of authority to continue the overreach they’re doing is important because the EPA has gone way beyond the original intent of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act in my opinion.”

Lawmakers who want the EPA to curb carbon emissions on its own see it differently. Conservative Justice Anonin Scalia wrote the opinion scolding the EPA. Virginia Democratic Congressman Jim Moran says Barrasso and other Republicans are misreading the decision. Moran says Scalia was merely pandering; he says the Court’s opinions granting the EPA broad power over carbon pollution trump this recent ruling.

“I think he had to do that for his conservative base. Some of these justices are more political than the politicians in town.”

Still, Republicans see a window and they’re itching for a fight. Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis is urging Wyoming’s governor to double down on his past challenges of the administration.

“I do hope that Governor Mead will prepare to sue the federal government with all of these overreaches.”

Still, Lummis is hoping she and other House Republicans can tie the administration’s hands from their perch in the Capitol.

“We are looking at limitations on spending. We’re looking at Oversight hearings that expose this massive overreach and massive shift and quite frankly at this point those hearings that expose the overreach are our best tool.”

The fight is different in the Democratically controlled Senate. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is in an intense fight to keep his post representing Kentucky – the nation’s third largest coal producing state. He’s currently holding up legislation to fund essential government functions in order to get an up or down vote on a bill to undercut the EPA’s new rule. Enzi says McConnell’s amendment would go a long way in Wyoming – the nation’s leading coal producing state.

“I think he’s got an important amendment for Wyoming you know we need to clarify what we’re doing and we should get a vote on it. If they’re fifty-one people around here that think that the EPA has gone too far then I think they ought to be told so. I think there would easily be fifty-one people that would do that.”

Barrasso agrees. He said the Senate majority leader is stifling free debate.

“You know Harry Reid has run the Senate in a dictatorial fashion he’s put a muzzle order on both Republicans and Democrats. We ought to be able bring bills to the floor of the United States Senate for debate and vote and Harry Reid with his gag order is not just muzzling republicans, he’s also muzzling democrats.”

It’s not just Republicans complaining. There’s growing discontent among younger Democratic senators to vote on a wide array of proposals, including energy legislation. But Virginia Senator Tim Kaine said Reid is merely responding to a Republican Party that wants to halt the administration at every turn.  

“We need more amendments and look, I think Leader Reid is frustrated by a process that has made it difficult to do.”

Kaine – who also has large coal fields in part of his state – says the process needs to be more open, even though many of those votes, like on the EPA, won’t always be easy.

“Look we all come here to do work amendments is part of the work, legislation is part of the work, not every vote is just going to be a light and easy one, you’re going to have to take some risks, but that’s good for the body and I think we’ll find a path to make an improvement.”

The control of the Senate is at stake in this fall’s elections and energy policy is expected to play a major role in the fight for control of the upper chamber. Whether Wyoming’s senators ever get to tie the EPA’s hands remains to be seen. Until then, all they really are left with are the nation’s courts.