EPA issues proposed endangerment finding on greenhouse gases

Greenhouse gases contribute to air pollution which may threaten public health or welfare, the US Environmental Protection Agency said on Apr. 17.

The proposed endangerment finding, which followed a scientific review that the US Supreme Court ordered in 2007, said that concentrations of six gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride) are at unprecedented levels because of human activities, according to EPA. It said that these high concentrations are very likely the cause of higher average temperatures and other climate changes.

The agency said that its analysis confirmed that climate change also increases drought, heavy downpours and flooding, and heat and wildfires; leads to rising sea levels and more intense storms, and damages water resources, agriculture, wildlife and ecosystems. It said that the proposed finding also sees security implications from global climate change, including escalating violence in politically unstable regions incited by increasingly scarce resources and massive migration to more stable areas.

"This finding confirms that greenhouse gas pollution is a serious problem now and for future generations. Fortunately, it follows [US President Barack H. Obama's] call for a low-carbon economy and strong leadership in Congress on clean energy and climate legislation. This pollution problem has a solution, one that will create millions of green jobs and end our country's dependence on foreign oil," EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said.

In a second proposed finding, she said that EPA found that combined emissions from motor vehicles contribute to the atmospheric concentrations of the six greenhouse gases. The proposed findings now enters a public comment period before EPA issues final findings, the agency said. The analysis does not include any proposed regulations, although Obama and Jackson both have said they would like to see comprehensive legislation passed to address the issue.

'Lost eight years'

Congressional reaction was mixed. US Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said the finding was long overdue. "We have lost eight years in this fight. The Clean Air Act provides EPA with an effective toolbox for cutting greenhouse gas emissions right now. However, the best and most flexible way to deal with this serious problem is to enact a market-based cap-and-trade system which will help us make the transition to clean energy and will bring us innovation and strong economic growth," she said. If Congress does not pass legislation to address the problem, she would call on EPA to use its authority, she added.

James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), the committee's ranking minority member, said that the proposed endangerment finding would unleash a torrent of regulations which would destroy jobs, harm consumers and extend EPA's reach into every corner of American life. "It now appears EPA's regulatory reach will find its way into schools, hospitals, assisted living facilities and just about any activity that meets minimum thresholds in the Clean Air Act. Rep. John D. Dingell [D-Mich.] was right: The endangerment finding will produce a 'glorious mess,'" Inhofe said.

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that she welcomed the action which will allow EPA to regulate air pollution from vehicles. "Congress is working on a comprehensive solution to global warming, and I am committed to moving clean energy legislation this year that will include perspectives from across our nation to create jobs, increase our national security and reduce global warming," she said.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said that EPA's action "is nothing more than a backdoor attempt to enact a national energy tax that will have a crushing impact on consumers, jobs and our economy. The administration is abusing the regulatory process to establish this tax because it knows there are not enough votes in Congress to force Americans to pay it."

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who chairs the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, said that EPA's proposed finding now puts pressure on Congress to solve the problem. To that end, he said that the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Energy and Environment Subcommittee, which he also chairs, would start to hold hearings next week. He said that there would be nine panels with 80 witnesses.

'Fundamentally ill-suited'

Oil and gas and other industry groups expressed concern. "The proposed endangerment finding poses an endangerment to the American economy and to every American family. It could lead to greenhouse gas regulations under a law fundamentally ill-suited to addressing the challenge of global climate change . . . The Clean Air Act was created to address local and regional air pollution, not the emission of carbon dioxide and other global greenhouse gases," American Petroleum Institute President Jack N. Gerard said.

"EPA's announcement really comes as no surprise, but what is surprising is the willingness to proceed without having addressed all of the valid concerns previously raised by stakeholders and consumers," National Petrochemical and Refiners Association President Charles T. Drevna said. He noted that NPRA submitted comments to EPA in December 2008 questioning models the agency used as well as its acknowledged lack of ability to characterize climate change effects on health and welfare, which significantly complicates understanding the net effects.

Choosing to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act would constitute EPA's single largest and potentially most complex assertion of authority over the US economy and individuals' lifestyles, he continued. "Before moving forward with regulation, the United States must ensure that other major global contributors are similarly committed to reducing their ambient greenhouse gas concentrations. US efforts would be fore naught if the administration fails to receive such commitments, and American economic competitiveness would be compromised," Drevna said.

A final endangerment finding would trigger greenhouse gas regulation under the Clean Air Act and pre-empt congressional debate on the issue, the National Association of Manufacturers warned. Using outdated programs under the law to regulate GHG emissions would burden an ailing economy while doing little or nothing to improve the environment, NAM President John Engler said. "The clean air laws were designed to focus on local pollutants. GHG emissions, however, are global in nature and require a new framework," he said.

American Chemistry Council President Cal Dooley said that as that group reviews the proposed finding and prepares to comment, it will focus on the proposal's scope and any implications for GHG regulation from stationary sources. "We believe that the Clean Air Act is not well-suited to address greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources. Given the national implications of carbon dioxide regulation by EPA and the interdependent nature of climate and energy issues, climate policy should be discussed and developed in Congress in tandem with energy policy," he said.

'No longer a question'

Environmental organizations cheered EPA's announcement. "Where the Bush administration lagged, the Obama administration is now leading. There is no longer a question of if or even when the US will act on global warming. We are doing so now. President Obama is taking it to the hoop when it comes to our most pressing problems. This step will allow the administration to move forward while continuing to work with Congress to pass a strong clean energy jobs and climate plan," said David Bookbinder, climate counsel for the Sierra Club.

"Now that EPA is no longer going to ignore the law, the howls we are hearing are from the same folks who have been busy blocking legislation in Congress to modify the law. One way or the other, the clear and present danger of endlessly dumping pollutants into the atmosphere must be confronted. We will either find a way to build a future for our children based on clean energy and sustainable jobs, or we will face a very unsentimental foe: a climate that makes life unsustainable," said David Moulton, climate policy director at the Wilderness Society.

"The Clean Air Act is our best tool for reducing greenhouse emissions from cars, ships and airplanes. For four decades, [it] has protected the air we breathe, saved thousands of lives and produced economic benefits at least 42 times the cost of regulation. EPA should immediately implement its effective and efficient mechanisms to reduce greenhouse gas pollution," said Matt Vespa, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

Other groups were critical. "Carbon is lighter than oxygen, more abundant than nitrogen and forms the basis of all human, plant and animal life on earth. At least it did yesterday. Today, it's a danger to human health and, upon meeting air, a clear and present threat to our existence. That was the pronouncement made by EPA, and it will be one this generation and others that follow will not soon forget," said Thomas J. Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research.

A coalition of eight free-market groups told Jackson in an Apr. 15 letter that an endangerment finding "will set the stage for an economic train wreck and a constitutional crisis." The groups, which include the Competitive Enterprise Institute, American Conservative Union and Americans for Tax Reform, said that it also "would lead to destructive regulatory schemes that Congress never authorized. Significant uncertainty persists with regard to climate sensitivity, the core scientific issue.

"Despite the ongoing increase in air's CO2 content, various measures of public welfare (life expectancy, heat-related mortality, weather-related mortality, air quality, agricultural productivity) continue to improve. Endangerment of public health and welfare is not 'reasonably anticipated,'" they maintained.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com

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