Cheap Shot: Polluters Cry ‘Power Grab,’ Attack Crucial U.S. Conservation Rules

Power Grab
©2010 National Wildlife Federation® | by Max Greenberg

The EPA is moving to regulate the carbon pollution that drives global warming. It’s about time, right?

Polluters who have become accustomed to dirtying the environment with impunity don’t think so. They know it means they will need to clean up their act, and that scares them. Which angers them. Which makes them cry ‘power grab.’

Now, when I hear it, I think of a wrestling move, probably involving stomping and yelling. I imagine it’s painful.

But that vaguely scary expression has been used to great effect by opponents of climate action and environmental conservation over the years as a kind of shorthand for government appropriation or conquest. The implication is strong, but the precise nature of the threat is usually purposely vague. For them, a ‘power grab’ can look like almost anything: attempts to enforce the Clean Air Act, U.S. participation in international emissions reduction talks, tougher restrictions against water pollution—all indicators of a coup a-brewin’, all symptoms of an imaginary conspiracy categorically impossible to disprove.*

Just how popular is this treacherous turn of phrase?

Heritage Foundation (9/13/10):

The [EPA’s] latest power grab is not going unchallenged, however. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has filed a federal lawsuit to force the EPA to reconsider the regulatory scheme…

Washington Times (9/23/10)

EPA’s power grab is clearly an end run around Congress, which has refused to pass a “cap and trade” bill…

Washington Times (10/8/10)

The EPA ploy is the Obama administration’s response to Congress’ failure to pass a broad climate bill… such an interpretation is a naked power grab by the EPA…

New York Post (12/8/09)

An EPA power grab: CO2 ruling a sure job-killer

National Review (6/10/10)

Curbing an EPA power grab

Sen. James Inhofe on the Clean Water Restoration Act

This bill is further proof that Washington doesn’t ‘get’ rural America.  The Democrats are moving a bill that amounts to the biggest bureaucratic power grab in a generation–and it’s directed right at America’s heartland. In fact, this bill is a significant part of a hostile agenda…

Wall Street Journal (10/28/09)

The aim (of the Copenhagen treaty) is to give a new as yet unnamed U.N. body the power to directly intervene in the financial, economic, tax and environmental affairs of all the nations…The reason for the power grab is clear enough: Clause after complicated clause of the draft treaty requires developed countries to pay an “adaptation debt”…

Honestly, these aren’t tough Google searches. I could go on and on and on. And so could you!**

Whether launched from the turnbuckle or the U.S. Senate Chamber, the dreaded ‘power grab’ is apparently always on Big Oil/Coal/Politician/Think-Tank’s mind–and frequently all over the opinion pages of some of their most dependable cheerleader publications. It is among the most pliable bogeymen imaginable, referring to alleged congressional bullying, federal agency oversteps, and one-world government plots with equal aplomb–albeit indistinctly, as always. It’s just the kind of meaningless yet unkillable messaging squib that makes a frustrated conservationist want to pull a Flying Hammerlock, like George ‘The Animal’ Steele, on the nearest fear-mongering pol.

( What’s that? No, I’m not terribly familiar with wrestling beyond references from when my dad was a kid, why do you ask? [dons reading glasses, does math with a slide rule] )

Anyway, the attempts of some to liken environmental action—especially EPA action—to a collectivist putsch are by now as well known and generally bankable as the Minnesota Twins losing to the Yankees in the playoffs. This isn’t fresh or inventive.

Even so, paranoid ‘power grab’ rhetoric has been in the news more than usual lately, as the likes of the American Petroleum Insitute, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and various coal and oil interests and elected officials attempt to handcuff the federal government before it enforces a three-year-old Supreme Court decision (PDF) that found global warming emissions are subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act as a harmful pollutant. The EPA has denied numerous petitions targeting climate science and generally stood tough behind Lisa Jackson against countless attacks, but it’s clear Big Polluters aren’t about to give up on their crusade for domination of the natural world. Even as their coffers overflow and their political clout grows, they have found the best way to fight back is often to play the victim and cry ‘takeover.’

This is all fitting. One of the few things I do know about America’s favorite spandex quasisport (wrestling, not Congress) is that the thing is mostly about branding and stagecraft. Clown wrestlers, cowboy wrestlers, amateur herpetologist wrestlers—this isn’t quite how it looked on ancient Greek friezes. In a way, that is precisely why some find it so satisfying. The wrestling entertainment industry has spawned a complex network of characters and storylines with accompanying glossaries, guides, and more footnotes than a stack of David Foster Wallace novels. The theatricality, where wrestling veers close to total artifice, requires suspension of disbelief on the part of its fans, but it actually delivers satisfyingly simple—on the moral spectrum—payoffs with a real sense of finality. The good babyface generally vanquishes the evil heel in the end, and for good reason (he stole his wife/killed his brother/betrayed him!). You know which is which because they just about tell you outright.

Big Polluters, and the groups and people in thrall to them, practice this kind of theater too. In the hands of a talented Senator, editorial writer, or CEO, the venerable federal agency tasked with protecting our natural resources becomes an enemy—an authority-hungry heel hell-bent on regulation. Multi-billion-dollar dirty energy interests  become kindly benefactors or representatives of working class America, courageous babyface underdogs despite their refusal to heed urgent scientific alarms. The ongoing storyline—‘angle,’ in pro wrestling argot—becomes a complete distortion of reality. Now, the APIs and Inhofes of the world pummel the EPA to within an inch of its regulatory life, steel chairs and all, blading*** themselves if it spills the blood they need to sell the danger to the American people: ‘LOOK OUT! POWER GRAB!’

Above: potential beneficiary of an EPA 'power grab'

Aside from being counterproductive—kind of tough for government to accomplish things when its actions are viewed through the lenses of  Rowdy Roddy Piper’s sunglasses, no?—the idea that any attempt at regulation, no matter how well founded, obscures or underscores a ‘takeover’ implies ugly things about the people making the accusations; namely, that they are absolutely terrified of the shifting current of history.

Big Polluters and Friends hold a great deal of power already, yet the idea of sound oversight based on established science so unnerves them that they must resort to deranged conspiracy potshots to curry public favor. What does this tell us? That they’re running scared, and will do anything to stem the tide.

Who panics this much despite being so demonstrably in a position of strength? Who frets this loudly despite a clear edge in brawn and glitz?   Maybe a wrestler losing confidence in his own angle.

* Note: Activity— try having your friends disprove the theory that President Lincoln was assassinated as a result of a pact between the Freemasons and a cabal of Venusian race car drivers. They can’t do it, can they? Now you’re almost ready to make your own ‘power grab’ accusations!

** Note: Christopher C. Horner, Senior Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute,  recently wrote a book called Power Grab: How Obama’s Green Policies Will Steal Your Freedom and Bankrupt America. I’ll bet this book contains many more examples of ‘power grab’ fear-mongering. Just a guess.

*** Note: can you believe that’s real? I saw it in The Wrestler, but still…