In the absence of congressional action on climate change, the Senate is heading toward a much-watched vote on whether the Obama administration should be allowed to go ahead with regulations curtailing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other major polluters.
The Republican-led measure coming to a vote late Thursday would stop the Environmental Protection Agency from carrying out rules to regulate carbon and other greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.
At least four Democrats have indicated their support for the legislation, and the vote is expected to be close. The measure will produce the most important vote this year on the climate change issue and is seen as a test of where lawmaker sentiments lie.
The White House on Tuesday said Barack Obama would be advised to veto the billif it ever reaches his desk. The bill, officials said in a statement, "would undermine the administration's efforts to reduce the negative impacts of pollution and the risks associated with environmental catastrophes, like the ongoing BP oil spill."
The sponsor of the legislation, GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski from oil-rich Alaska, said she was "flabbergasted" by the effort to link her bill to the Gulf disaster, saying her intent was to stop bureaucratic usurping of congressional authority.
"You either support the Congress setting the policy on climate change or you support the EPA in their capacity as a regulatory agency setting policy," she said.
Also at issue is how the legislation would affect the Obama administration's tough new emission standards for the auto industry. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said Tuesday that it would "gut EPA's authority in the clean cars program," increasing oil consumption by 455 million barrels over the lifetime of the newly regulated vehicles.
Murkowski challenged that, saying the Transportation Department has for three decades had the ability to set emission standards, and the EPA has a limited role in fuel economy standards.
The senator also argued that the EPA rules would impose too heavy a burden on small businesses and farmers, resulting in job losses. Jackson countered that small sources of pollution will be exempted from the rules, set to go into effect in January, for six years.
"I know that the local Starbucks and the backyard grill are no places to look for meaningful CO2 reductions," she said.
Despite White House prodding and the refocusing on the energy issue with the BP oil spill, it is unclear whether the Senate has the capability to come up with a clean energy bill this year that can muster the 60 votes needed for passage.
In that light, said Sarah Saylor, senior legislative representative of the environmental group Earthjustice, Thursday's vote is "a distraction from the real task at hand before the Senate to find a way forward toward a sustainable and prosperous clean-energy future."
Second, she said, "it is a test," showing which senators are on the side of the fossil fuel industry.
But Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller from the coal state of West Virginia, said Tuesday he was siding with Murkowski because "I believe we must send a strong message that the fate of West Virginia's economy, our manufacturing industries and our workers should not be solely in the hands of EPA."
The EPA actions grew out of a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases could be regulated under the Clean Air Act if it were shown that such gases endanger health.
Determining that global warming did pose a long-term danger to health, the EPA has issued standards requiring large polluters to reduce the amounts of greenhouse gases they release into the air.