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March 15, 2011 / J. Shaw

Big Labor Takes on Bully EPA

The Obama administration’s environmental agenda, long a target of American business, is beginning to take fire from some of the Democratic Party’s most reliable supporters: Labor unions.

Several unions with strong influence in key states are demanding that the Environmental Protection Agency soften new regulations aimed at pollution associated with coal-fired power plants. Their contention: Roughly half a dozen rules expected to roll out within the next two years could put thousands of jobs in jeopardy and damage the party’s 2012 election prospects.

“If the EPA issues regulations that cost jobs in Pennsylvania and Ohio, the Republicans will blast the President with it over and over,” says Stewart Acuff, chief of staff to the president of the Utility Workers Union of America. “Not just the President. Every Democratic [lawmaker] from those states.”

A range of American companies that depend on fossil fuel—from coal and oil firms to manufacturers—have complained about the Obama EPA, one reason the administration has had tense relations with business. In meetings in recent days, representatives of electric power utilities that rely heavily on coal-fired plants, and some large unions, have taken their concerns to the White House. The companies and the unions have said a new regulation targeting mercury and other toxic pollutants, due to be proposed this week, could lead to higher electric bills, billions of dollars in new costs and the closing of plants that employ thousands of workers.

Now that labor unions are joining the chorus, the pressure on the agency is intensifying. Some Democrats, worried about potential job losses in industrial states, are already urging the EPA to slow down its push to combat climate change.

EPA officials say such criticisms are premature, since some of the rules in question have yet to be proposed, and that history shows the benefits of tougher environmental rules greatly outweigh the costs.

The EPA rule stirring the most anxiety will be proposed this week: It seeks to reduce emissions of toxic air pollutants, including mercury, which can cause neurological disorders in children.

An analysis by the miners’ union says the proposal, along with others targeting coal-related pollution, could put at risk as many as 250,000 jobs. Many of those would come from the utility, mining and railroad sectors, with the heaviest impact falling on Rust Belt states that have many old coal plants—and electoral votes.

“These are the same doomsday scenarios we hear whenever we take steps to protect Americans from dangerous air pollution,” responded EPA spokesman Brendan Gilfillan. He said it’s too early for the union to calculate possible job losses. A study released by the agency this month said EPA regulations put in place between 1990 and 2005 and aimed at reducing soot and smog will yield $2 trillion in benefits in 2020, largely from fewer premature deaths.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has also sought to tighten regulations covering traditional pollutants associated with coal. Some of her proposals have come in response to federal court decisions that invalidated regulations set under President George W. Bush.

Nevertheless, the EPA has slowed its timetable for action on some issues in recent months. Ms. Jackson late last year delayed a decision on whether to tighten the government’s limits on ground-level ozone, a primary ingredient in smog. A coalition of labor groups including Boilermakers, Mine Workers and Utility Workers warned her in a letter that tightening the standard would lead to “significant job losses across the country.” A group of Democratic senators from Missouri, Indiana and Louisiana said in their own letter such a move would “have a significant negative impact on our states’ workers.”

Ms. Jackson has said she delayed her decision not in response to pressure, but to ensure the regulation is grounded in “the best science.”

Last month, the EPA unveiled a scaled-back version of regulations it proposed last year targeting emissions of pollutants from industrial boilers after being deluged with letters and comments.

The United Steelworkers said in an August letter that “tens of thousands” of jobs at factories whose employees are represented by the Steelworkers “will be imperiled” by the rule, along with other related jobs.


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