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Are Georgia's two U.S. senators too beholden to "Big Oil" companies?
That's the claim on a website created by Oil Change International, critical about the positions of some U.S. senators on some oil and energy issues. The site, www.bobbinginpetroleum.org, has images of 46 senators, including Georgia's Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson.
Make no mistake, Oil Change International has an agenda. It identifies itself on its website as "a research and advocacy organization that exists to force progress in the energy industry towards an environmentally and socially sustainable energy future." The website also proclaims that the tax-exempt organization "campaigns to expose the true costs of oil and facilitate the coming transition towards clean energy. We are dedicated to identifying and overcoming political barriers to that transition."
The website says Chambliss and Isakson have accepted a combined $331,000 in what it dubbed "dirty energy contributions." The largest contributor, about $128,000, was Atlanta-based Southern Co.
For visual effect, the heads and torsos of the two senators are floating in rubber duckies in oil-stained water. An oil barrel is in the background.
AJC PolitiFact Georgia certainly could not ignore an opportunity to dive deeper into this website. We also wanted to know if Chambliss and Isakson voted for legislation that "gut clear air protections and increase oil dependence."
We reached out to the offices of both senators to see if they disputed the claims against their bosses. Both defended their votes in favor of legislation the website criticized. Isakson's Senate seat is up for re-election on Nov. 2.
We decided to dig deeper into the claim about the resolution, since the staff of both senators seemed to have a larger beef with that.
The legislation in question was written by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska. It aimed to prevent the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from formulating regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The first of the new regulations could take effect in 2011. Murkowski argued Congress needs more input in the process, but her bill failed by a 53 to 47 vote. If Murkowski's resolution had been approved, some activists argued it would have a negative impact on clean air regulations. Bobbing in Petroleum called the legislation the "Big Oil Bailout."
Chambliss and Isakson argued in support of the legislation largely on economic grounds. The legislation was a skirmish in the ongoing battle in Washington over efforts to pass sweeping energy legislation. The House passed a bill last year to establish a cap on carbon emissions, but the legislation has run into firm opposition in the Senate. Many Republican leaders say the so-called "cap and trade" legislation would become a job-killing tax. Pass the legislation, they argue, and you put Americans out of work.
"This backdoor attempt to regulate greenhouse gases will have dramatic negative effects on our manufacturing sector while also causing significant increases in the cost of power generation," Isakson said in a statement after the June 10 vote.
Chambliss said in a speech on the Senate floor that day that the EPA's actions would require more cash-strapped farmers to get federal Clean Air Act permits, hurting many of them financially.
So would the Murkowski bill "gut clean air protections and increase oil dependence"?
First, we must go back to 2007. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 vote that the EPA must consider putting controls on carbon dioxide and other gases in automobile exhaust. The majority rejected arguments by the administration of then-President George W. Bush, a Republican, that the Clean Air Act does not treat carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases as "pollutants," and thus does not give the EPA the authority to regulate them.
In September 2009, the EPA, under the administration of President Barack Obama, a Democrat, announced plans to require better gas mileage for cars and trucks and the first-ever rules on vehicle greenhouse gas emissions. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson wants to establish a greenhouse gas emission for cars and light trucks in model years 2012 to 2016.
Murkowski introduced her legislation in January to stop the EPA effort.
Stephen Kretzmann, who created the Bobbing in Petroleum site, said the EPA regulations would reduce automotive oil consumption by more than 1.8 billion barrels, citing comments Jackson made in a statement to a House of Representatives energy subcommittee.
"Eliminating the EPA standard would forfeit ... one-third of its greenhouse gas emissions reductions," Jackson said.
Kretzmann also noted a letter by former EPA Administrator Russell Train urging the Senate to vote down the Murkowski bill. Train said the legislation would roll back Clean Air Act protections.
"If Congress had removed EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gases, industry would have been on more solid ground to challenge them in the future. And I have no doubt that they will, if given the chance," said Kretzmann, who said he's worked on energy and oil issues for nearly two decades.
Jonas Monast, who has expertise in federal climate protection policies, agreed Murkowski's legislation would adversely impact the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. However, he said it would not impact U.S. Department of Transportation's ability to increase vehicle efficiency, a point that's been made by other nonpartisan observers. Cars, buses and trucks account for about half of all cancers attributed to outdoor sources of air toxins, federal officials say. The EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are working on a new rating system that rates the overall fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions of different vehicles to help consumers before buying a new car, SUV, truck or van.
Would the bill increase oil dependence?
"I don't think it's possible to predict at this point," said Monast, senior policy counsel at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Studies at Duke University.
Obama announced in May a plan to impose mileage and pollution limits on vehicles, particularly SUVs and trucks. Obama used the BP oil spill to highlight the need to rely less on fossil fuels. The EPA argued Murkowski's resolution would hurt the president's plan and continue America's dependence on foreign oil. Murkowski argued her resolution would not impact the federal Department of Transportation's ability to regulate fuel efficiency.
Every expert we talked to said the Murkowski legislation would hurt the EPA's efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. But the experts also said it would not impact federal transportation officials from moving forward with efforts to increase vehicle efficiency. Whether or not the bill would increase oil dependence is still debatable. We rate the statement on the website as Half True.
Associated Press, "Talks roll on auto emissions," Sept. 16, 2009
Associated Press, "Obama orders new fuel limits," May 22, 2010
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Justices deal Bush setback on emissions," April 3, 2007
Clean Air Act, Section 202 (a)
E-mails from Stephen Kretzmann, Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, 2010
EPA fact sheet, Air Toxics From Motor Vehicles
EPA Regulatory Announcement on proposed changes to motor vehicle fuel economy label, August 2010
Letter by former EPA Administrator Russell Train
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski floor statement resolution on EPA disapproval resolution, June 10, 2010
Statement by U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, June 10, 2010
Statement by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, April 28, 2010
Telephone and e-mail interview with Jonas Monast, senior policy counsel, Nicholas Institute, Aug. 26 and 31, 2010
U.S. Senate Joint Resolution 26
U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss speech on Murkowski amendment, June 10, 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmotKL5v8NM
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