Move to fight Obama’s new environmental regulations was shaped many months ago by Republican strategists, coal states and lobbyists.
WASHINGTON — In the early months of 2014, a group of about 30 corporate lawyers, coal lobbyists and Republican political strategists began meeting regularly in the headquarters of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, often, according to some of the participants, in a conference room overlooking the White House.
Their task was to start devising a legal strategy to dismantle the climate-change regulations they feared were coming from President Obama.
The group — headed in part by Roger Martella, a top environmental official in the George W. Bush administration, and Peter Glazer, a prominent Washington lobbyist — was getting an early start. Obama had not even put forth a draft proposal. But the president had made plain, through several speeches, that he intended to act forcefully on climate change, and that he would flex the muscle of his executive authority to do so.
“If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will,” he said in his 2013 State of the Union address. The lawyers and lobbyists wanted to be ready to fire back hard and fast when he did.
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Monday afternoon, in a ceremony in the White House East Room, Obama unveiled his final plan — a set of new regulations, to be implemented under the 1970 Clean Air Act, that would drastically reduce the nation’s carbon pollution, shutter hundreds of coal-fired power plants, spur a surge in production of wind and solar electricity and likely serve as the death knell for the nation’s coal-mining industry.
Within minutes of his announcement, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey stepped before a bank of cameras at the Greenbrier resort in his home state. Flanked by Mike Duncan, president of one of the nation’s top coal-lobbying groups, and Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, Morrisey announced that a group of at least 15 state attorneys general were preparing to jointly file a legal challenge to Obama’s proposal.
“The final rule announced Monday blatantly disregards the rule of law and will severely harm West Virginia and the U.S. economy,” Morrisey said. “This rule represents the most far-reaching energy regulation in this nation’s history, drawn up by radical bureaucrats and based on an obscure, rarely used provision of the Clean Air Act.”
Built vast network of opponents
The small group that had begun its work at the Chamber of Commerce had expanded into a vast network of lawyers and lobbyists ranging from state capitols to Capitol Hill, aided by Republican governors and congressional leaders. And their plan is to challenge Obama at every opportunity and take the fight against what, if enacted, would be one of his signature accomplishments to the Supreme Court.
Morrisey, whose coal-producing state is struggling with the nation’s highest unemployment rate, was chosen as the public face of the suit. But key strategists joining the original planning were Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, a former attorney general there, and Scott Pruitt, the attorney general of Oklahoma. Both had experience with suing the Obama administration over major Clean Air Act regulations.
In devising its strategy, the group worked closely with the office of Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader whose coal-producing state also stands to suffer. While McConnell opposes the climate-change regulations, his advisers knew he has little chance of enacting legislation to block them in Congress.
Instead, he has taken the unusual step of reaching out directly to governors and state attorneys general, urging them to refuse to submit compliance plans for the regulations, and encouraging a state-by-state rejection of the rules.
A key ally in the effort is the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a conservative advocacy group that pushes policy through state legislatures. Typically, the council’s committees of corporate members will craft a model bill designed to push through policies it supports, such as rolling back environmental regulations.
At a July meeting in San Diego, ALEC’s energy committee — which includes Duncan, the coal lobbyist who worked closely with McConnell on his tactics — enacted a model bill designed to directly support state attorneys general who legally challenge the climate-change plan.
According to a person at that meeting, the bill would allow states to create new legal funds, which could receive corporate donations, to support legal challenges to the climate-change rules.
The Obama administration contends that despite the massive scale of the legal challenges trained against it, its plan is legally sound. “The final rule is built on a rock-solid legal foundation,” said Thomas Reynolds, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spokesman.
“EPA is using its clear authority under the Clean Air Act to set emission standards for air pollutants. The rule is wholly consistent with the law, and we are confident it will withstand any and all legal challenges,” Reynolds said.
The rules, a final, stricter version of a plan the EPA announced in 2012 and 2014, assign each state a target for reducing its carbon pollution from power plants. States will be allowed to create their own plans to meet the requirements and will have to submit initial versions of their plans by 2016 and final versions by 2018.
The most aggressive of the regulations requires that by 2030, the nation’s existing power plants must cut emissions 32 percent from 2005 levels, which is greater than the 30 percent target proposed in the draft regulation.
Pope as example
The president called the new rules a public-health imperative and “the single most important step America has ever taken in the fight against global climate change.” He also sought to wrap the policy in the legitimacy of transcendental values, noting Pope Francis had issued an encyclical in June, calling action on the issue a “moral obligation.”
Even as Obama acknowledged the steep resistance from coal-producing states and industry critics, he said it was up to the United States to adopt tough standards so that other countries like China would feel compelled to take similar steps.
McConnell said the president had crafted the rules because he was “tired of having to work with the Congress the people elected.”
“That’s why the administration is now trying to impose these deeply regressive regulations — regulations that may be illegal, that won’t meaningfully impact the global environment, and that are likely to harm middle- and lower-class Americans most — by executive fiat,” McConnell said.