LEWISTON — Maine's moderate Republican senators are at the center of another national political fight, this time with environmental groups and federal government regulators on one side and paper industry lobbyists and conservatives on the other.
U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins voted in favor of moving forward on a Senate resolution Thursday that would have revoked the ability of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. The measure, which needed 51 votes to pass, failed 47-53. Six Democrats joined all 41 Senate Republicans in supporting the resolution.
Both Maine senators said they agreed with environmental organizations that carbon dioxide emissions must be regulated, but they think that is best done by Congress, not the EPA.
“I have serious concerns about unelected government officials at the EPA taking on this complicated issue instead of Congress,” Collins said during floor debate on Thursday. Collins had been recently targeted in a local television ad by a national group urging her to oppose the measure.
National and local environmental lobbyists say Congress has had the opportunity to regulate the emissions but has failed to act. Several comprehensive energy and climate control bills are circulating in the Senate, but none has been brought forward for a vote. One is a bipartisan measure crafted by Collins and Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington. The U.S. House passed its own version of the legislation last year.
Thursday's vote was largely symbolic because it would have required the heavily Democratic House to pass the measure and it would need President Barack Obama's signature. He had said he would veto it.
Dylan Voorhees, clean energy project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said the vote sends the wrong message about carbon dioxide regulation.
“This vote will be read domestically and internationally as a signal about the intentions of the U.S. Senate on getting control of climate emissions and reducing our dependence on foreign oil,” Voorhees said.
“It's bad policy, but I'm (also) concerned about the signal it sends," he said. "It relates to the larger needs for comprehensive climate and clean energy legislation. and all eyes are on this country and all eyes are on the Senate and many of those eyes are on our two senators, looking and trying to understand: Are we going to be able to do this?”
Snowe and Collins pointed out what they said were flaws in the EPA's preliminary rules for regulating carbon dioxide emissions as the basis of their support of the measure, which would have stripped that regulatory authority from the federal agency.
“Incredibly, the EPA proposes to ignore the carbon neutrality of biomass and place onerous permitting requirements on businesses such as Maine's biomass plants and paper mills, which use biomass to provide energy for their operations,” Collins said. “This reverses years of EPA considering biomass as carbon-neutral.”
Snowe said the EPA's new stance on biomass could negatively affect about 30 facilities in Maine that represent more than 8,500 jobs.
“It is Congress and not unelected bureaucrats that should be responsible for developing environmental policies that integrate our nation’s economic well-being as an urgent priority along with the reduction of carbon emissions, and I do not accept that these are mutually exclusive goals,” Snowe said in a statement.
She cited her past work on legislation requiring higher vehicle fuel efficiency standards and a measure that incorporated economic costs into the reduction of carbon emissions as evidence of her concern for the environment and the increased regulation of carbon dioxide, specifically.
“I will continue to work with my congressional colleagues to achieve our shared goals of fostering a healthy economy while moving toward a clean-energy future by replacing EPA regulations with a system that protects Maine employers and reduces greenhouse gases by the level that science dictates,” she said.
It is uncertain whether the Senate would take up comprehensive energy legislation before the November congressional elections.