US environment agency declares greenhouse gases a threat

Decision paves the way for climate regulation by the Obama administration.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today declared greenhouse gases a threat to public health and welfare, a move that gives the Obama administration broad powers to regulate greenhouse gases without going through Congress.

EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said the proposed endangerment finding confirms that greenhouse gases pose a “serious problem” for current and future generations, who could face an increased frequency of droughts, air pollution and flooding, as well as a rise in sea level. The document represents a small but critical step on the path to regulation, and it must now go through a 60-day public comment period.

The proposal came as no surprise given President Barack Obama’s calls for action on global warming, but environmentalists and supporters in Congress nonetheless declared it a landmark decision.

“This is an important piece of basic honesty about the translation of science into its legal consequences,” says David Doniger, who handles climate policy issues for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington DC.

The finding stems from an April 2007 Supreme Court ruling that carbon dioxide is a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. That decision focused on automobile emissions but opened the doors to broader regulations. Only one thing was required of the EPA: a determination that carbon dioxide, then deemed a pollutant, also represented a threat.

Under President George W. Bush, EPA scientists and officials prepared an endangerment finding, but the administration delayed a final decision, leaving Obama with the final word.

Climate of change

On Friday, the EPA included in its endangerment finding not only carbon dioxide but also methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur hexafluoride, hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons — all of the greenhouse gases covered under the United Nations climate treaty. The document specifically cited greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles as a danger to public health.

California Democrat Barbara Boxer, who handles climate regulation in the Senate as chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, called the document eight years overdue. Still, she suggests that the “best and most flexible way” to deal with global warming is to enact a cap-and-trade bill in Congress. The first such bill this year was introduced in the House of Representatives last month by Henry Waxman (Democrat, California) and Ed Markey (Democrat, Massachusetts).

Many experts think a law passed by Congress would be less likely to face court challenges that could bog down or even reverse regulations at the last minute. And representatives of businesses and industry generally would prefer to work with lawmakers to craft a more palatable compromise rather than allowing an administration to craft rules behind closed doors.

Administration officials have repeatedly said that they would prefer to work with lawmakers on climate legislation. But they have also maintained the threat of direct regulation if Congress fails to enact legislation.

Whether it moves forward of its own accord or is pushed by lawsuits from environmentalists, the agency is bound to pursue regulations if Congress doesn’t act, says Jeff Holmstead, a former EPA official under Bush who now works for the Washington-based firm Bracewell and Giuliani. He says the question is whether those regulations will be effective.

Regulations designed to boost efficiency and eke out small gains might be feasible, Holmstead says, but setting up a massive program to curb emissions by 80 percent by mid-century could be both difficult and vulnerable to court challenge. “I think this is all about primarily increasing leverage on moderate Democrats and Republicans in Congress,” he says.

Jeff Tollefson, Nature News, 17 April 2009. Article.

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