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Democrats Wasting No Time in Flexing Muscle on Environment

After years of watching from the sidelines, Democrats — who promised to make energy and the environment a priority this year — are scoring early victories through a combination of increased oversight, legislative threats and holds on White House nominees.

The Democrats’ aggressive focus on climate change already may have achieved results over the weekend with the surprise announcement that investors were forcing Texas utility giant TXU Corp. to scale back plans to build new coal-fired power plants —a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions — as part of a leveraged buyout.

Lawmakers had complained that the company was rushing to build the plants before Congress imposed stringent new restrictions on utilities as part of climate change legislation. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) reportedly had threatened to block the expansion plans through legislation.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in a Feb. 25 statement that he is “pleased that the financial community is beginning to respond to our concerns about plans to build new power plants that will produce large amounts of carbon dioxide, at dilute concentrations, that might never be captured at any realistic price.”

In the meantime, committee chairs in the House and Senate are scrutinizing the Bush administration’s fiscal year 2008 environmental budget request and spotlighting what they deem environmental “rollbacks” enacted by the Bush administration.

In one of her first actions as chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) hauled EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson before her panel to protest a series of agency reforms that she called “unwelcome gifts” to industry.

“EPA has gone too long without oversight,” she said at the Feb. 6 hearing. “I want to send a clear signal to EPA and to this administration: We are watching. The American public is watching. And no longer will EPA rollbacks quietly escape scrutiny.”

Boxer’s message “demonstrates that the committee is going to take a close look at EPA actions and EPA may find that intimidating,” said Ed Hopkins, director of the Sierra Club’s environmental quality program.

During the hearing, Boxer highlighted a laundry list of regulatory actions by the agency that she intends to monitor in the 110th Congress, including proposed EPA reforms on the reporting of toxics that is favored by industry; agency plans to close regional libraries as a cost-saving measure; EPA’s actions on the water toxin perchlorate; and a proposal to change how the agency assimilates advice from outside scientists when developing air quality regulations. Those matters are certain to come up when the EPA administrator appears before a House Appropriations subcommittee later this week.

Democrats already have scored some victories on other issues.

Following the November elections, EPA retreated from a proposal to change toxics reporting regulations for industry after New Jersey Democratic Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Bob Menendez, placed a hold on the administration’s pick to head EPA’s information office.

Lautenberg and House Democrats later introduced legislation to block EPA from implementing other reforms to the toxics reporting program.

Also after the election, key House lawmakers who now chair committees with oversight of EPA wrote to the agency to express concerns over the agency’s plans to close regional libraries, a move EPA says would save money and improve public access to data stored at the sites by putting it all online. EPA has now put those closings on hold until the Government Accountability Office completes a review of the plan requested by the lawmakers.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) was also successful in forcing the agency to back off a regulatory proposal he opposed. The Senator placed a hold on the administration’s nominee to be EPA’s general counsel over an EPA air quality rule that he feared could expose the Pacific Northwest to unsafe levels of toxic benzene. EPA rescinded the proposal earlier this month, and Wyden claimed victory in a statement.

Two more pending EPA nominations may provide Democrats with additional opportunities to force concessions. In the 109th Congress, Boxer placed holds on Bill Wehrum’s nomination to head EPA’s air office and Alex Beehler to be the agency’s Inspector General, citing concerns about their past records. The White House resubmitted both men’s nominations last month. Boxer’s spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

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