INSIGHT: US EPA wants someone else to do CO2

23 April 2009 15:42  [Source: ICIS news]

Even EPA wants to avoid CO2 regulation taskBy Joe Kamalick

WASHINGTON (ICIS news)--The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has declared that carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHG) pose a danger to public health and must be regulated - but even EPA doesn’t want the job.

In a long-anticipated “endangerment finding” issued last Friday (17 April), the agency said that its evaluation “confirms that greenhouse gas pollution is a serious problem now and for future generations”.

Citing the agency’s formal “Proposed Endangerment and Cause or Contribute Findings,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said that “The science clearly shows that concentrations of these gases are at unprecedented levels as a result of human emissions, and these high levels are very likely the cause of the increase in average temperatures and other changes in our climate”.

Jackson said that EPA’s action was in keeping with the April 2007 ruling by the US Supreme Court in Massachusetts v. EPA that the agency does have regulatory authority over CO2 and other greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act (CAA).

But, just because the nation’s highest court says the agency has authority to regulate CO2 doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea, according to many in industry and even some of the leading proponents of climate control.

The US Chamber of Commerce warned that EPA’s finding of endangerment “could lead to regulations that will hamper America’s ability to create jobs, stimulate the economy and improve our energy security”.

The endangerment finding for CO2 and the other five greenhouse gases was issued in proposed form and is subject to public comment for 60 days before becoming final. In addition, the EPA’s initial finding of endangerment is limited to CO2 and other emissions from automobiles and other mobile sources such as construction equipment and off-road vehicles.

The chamber notes that the Clean Air Act’s motor vehicle provisions allows EPA to phase-in regulations while taking into account technical and economic considerations. In theory, at least, EPA could decide to postpone regulating mobile sources because of the potentially devastating impact such emissions restrictions could have on the nation’s energy costs and broader economy.

However, the rest of the CAA does not give EPA that sort of flexibility, the chamber points out. Consequently, “a final endangerment finding will surely spur litigation to shoehorn all emitters, not just motor vehicles, into a wide range of Clean Air Act programmes”.

In other words, according to the chamber, if EPA proceeds to make its endangerment finding final, there will be no turning back. Pandora’s box will be opened and emptied.

A final finding, said the chamber, “will allow non-governmental entities and activist groups to take the regulations out of EPA’s hands and apply the Clean Air Act through the courts”, a course of events that “would kill economic growth and jobs”.

The American Petroleum Institute (API) was sharply critical of EPA’s action, saying that the agency’s “proposed endangerment finding poses an endangerment to the American economy and to every American family”.

Regulations resulting from the EPA’s action, said API President Jack Gerard, “could impose complex, costly requirements on restaurants, colleges, schools, shopping malls, bakeries and many other businesses and institutions.”

Like API, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) argues that the Clean Air Act “is not well-suited to address greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources” and should in fact be avoided in favour of a more balanced and considered policy by Congress.

“Given the national implications of carbon dioxide regulation by EPA and the interdependent nature of climate and energy issues,” said ACC President Cal Dooley, “climate policy should be discussed and developed in Congress, in tandem with energy policy.”

One of the concerns of the US chemicals sector is the likelihood that a federal limit on CO2 emissions - whether imposed by EPA or Congress - would trigger a stampede among the nation’s electric utilities to switch from coal-fired generation to natural gas.

Such large-scale fuel switching would create huge new demand for and pricing pressure on natural gas, a major feedstock for North American chemicals manufacturers.

However, if it is Congress that crafts and directs some sort of emissions reduction mandate, chemical producers and other manufacturers see at least the possibility of being able to influence the final shape of such a sweeping federal requirement.

The EPA’s endangerment finding will undermine the US economy at a time when it is already weakened, said National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) President John Engler.

“This proposal will cost jobs,” Engler said. “It is the worst possible time to be proposing rules that will drive up the cost of energy to no valid purpose.”

As have others, Engler argues that even draconian US limits on carbon and other GHG emissions will do little to alter Earth’s atmosphere or impede global warming because other nations likely will not make parallel sacrifices.

“The clean air laws were designed to focus on local pollutants,” Engler said. “GHG emissions, however, are global in nature and require a new framework.”

That framework, he said, should be crafted by Congress, not dictated by EPA.

“The NAM looks forward to continuing to work with Congress and President Obama’s administration to discuss a modern and comprehensive climate policy that will achieve environmental objectives without inflicting harm on an economy attempting to recover and grow again,” Engler said.

Even strong climate change advocates who welcomed the EPA announcement were more than a little hesitant about allowing the agency to be the sole agent of US climate policy.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democrat-California) said that she “welcomes the decision by the Obama administration to recognize the Supreme Court’s decision allowing EPA to use the Clean Air Act to regulate air pollution from vehicles”.

However, she also was careful to note that “Congress is working on a comprehensive solution to global warming ... that will include perspectives from across our nation”, not just that of the EPA.

Senator Joe Lieberman (Independent-Connecticut), a former leading Democrat who still caucuses with Senate Democrats and who has championed climate control legislation, said that with the EPA endangerment finding “We now have two choices”.

“We can wait for EPA to develop expensive, top-down regulations, or Congress can act first and pass legislation to address climate change in a way that creates jobs, keeps energy bills down, and ensures the continued competitiveness of American-made goods,” Lieberman said, adding that he believes strongly that “a cap and trade system is the best approach”.

Whether Congress in its wisdom can impose an emissions cap on the nation’s utilities and industry and in so doing create jobs, lower energy costs and improve export trade remains to be seen.

Even some environmental groups were somewhat hesitant about EPA taking the reins in climate control, with the Center for Clean Air Policy (CCAP) saying that the EPA finding of endangerment “increases the pressure for Congress to pass comprehensive climate legislation that can achieve deeper reductions at a lower cost than what can be done under the Clean Air Act”.

The EPA itself practically asked to be excused from duty, suggesting that it acted only because the Supreme Court required it to do so. 

Interestingly, the EPA endangerment announcement closed by saying: “Notwithstanding this required regulatory process, both President Obama and Administrator Jackson have repeatedly indicated their preference for comprehensive legislation to address this issue and create the framework for a clean energy economy.”

The trouble is that Congress could very well fail to reach a lowest common denominator on climate legislation, one that will garner majority support in both chambers.

Crafting a climate change bill will require painful sacrifices by so many industries, workers and the energy-consuming public in general that Congress may deadlock on the matter, leaving greenhouse gas regulation to the EPA - and to most everyone’s dismay.

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By: Joe Kamalick
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