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McConnell Wants States to Just Ignore EPA Regulations, But His Plan Makes No Sense

Alex Wong/Getty Images

In a op-ed published Tuesday in the Lexington Herald-LeaderSenate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell argued that states should ignore the Environmental Protection Agency's climate change regulations intended to cut power plants’ carbon pollution 30 percent by 2030 (from 2005 levels). McConnell has sold this strategy as a win-win: States manage to delay the costs of the rule and, in the meantime, can make it easier for Republicans and the courts to dismantle the regulations. McConnell’s justification? The so-called inevitable repeal of the EPA’s regulations. "Think twice before submitting a state plan[...] when the administration is standing on shaky legal ground and when, without your support, it won't be able to demonstrate the capacity to carry out such political extremism," he wrote.

However, McConnell's argument doesn't really work: States can't simply opt out of a federal regulation. Once the EPA finalizes its climate regulations on coal plants by mid-summer, state governments will need to submit their plans before the summer of 2016, detailing how they will curb carbon pollution over the next decade. Each state has the option to come up with the best possible solution to get to their targets by 2030, whether that's through renewable energy development, energy efficiency, or pollution controls at coal plants. But a state doesn't nullify the EPA regulations by simply refusing to submit a plan. If that happens, then the EPA’s one-size-fits-all model (a "federal implementation plan") kicks in.

McConnell's op-ed quoted Harvard constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe, who finds the EPA has gone "far beyond its lawful authority." Tribe does think the EPA's approach to the regulations is unconstitutional, and argues they will likely be overturned in court. Even so, Tribe told me McConnell’s advice for states to wait until courts litigate the issue is “not really helpful.” "The problem for Kentucky and many other states—and for the electric power businesses operating in those states—is that they can’t count on my being right,” Tribe said. He said "the uncertain legal environment puts many states (and employers doing business and providing jobs in those states) in an impossible position: either gamble that the rule of law will prevail [...] or give in now and act cynically to minimize your potential losses."

Other experts at Natural Resources Defense Council and Columbia Law School argue EPA opponents are only hurting themselves by following McConnell's plan. States give up their opportunities to come up with the most cost-effective plan by handing over responsibility to the EPA. “A state that writes its own plan gets to make a lot of choices on how to meet its target in the way that makes the most sense for the state’s power companies and other stakeholders,” NRDC Climate and Clean Energy Program Director David Doniger said in an email. “The state has more implementation tools at its disposal than EPA has, if the job defaults to EPA.”

In an essay for Columbia Law School, environmental law expert Daniel Selmi tallied up the consequences of opting out. Electricity ratepayers could pay more under the federal plan than a state-customized version, because the EPA would likely emphasize cutting carbon pollution at power plants, instead of looking at ways the state can make those cuts through energy efficiency. There are also economic benefits of acting sooner, rather than later, on carbon pollution: Climate change isn’t going away, and neither are red state politicians saving face by opting out. “No one thinks that states implementing the federal health care law are responsible for ‘Obamacare,’” Selmi wrote, “and here very few are likely to mistake the source of the clean power rules.”