The regulatory activism for which Lisa P. Jackson long will be remembered hit full stride in her first year as administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency.
On Dec. 7, 2009, she made the final finding that carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases endanger public health by contributing to atmospheric warming.
The Supreme Court had ruled in April 2007 that the GHGs represent “pollutants” under the statute but left to EPA the determination that they posed threats to public health warranting regulation under the Clean Air Act.
Late in the administration of George W. Bush, the EPA had drafted a finding of public endangerment, which went nowhere. Under Barack Obama, the EPA and its eager new leader received more support for its expansion of the federal government’s role in economic affairs.
Now, therefore, CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride are, officially, pollutants, and emitters of them are regularly disparaged as polluters. This category, of course, includes anyone who breathes.
Although Jackson, who has announced her retirement in January, produced a sprawling record of regulatory aggression at EPA, the endangerment finding will prove to have been the pinnacle. It should be renamed the empowerment finding. Jackson used it to claim authority over much US energy consumption through regulations still largely under development at EPA.
This historic seizure of power grew out of a 1999 court petition by environmental and renewable-energy pressure groups. Success of the effort to classify a gas essential to life as a life-threatening pollutant was not a scientific outcome; scientifically, the classification is absurd. Success of the effort was a demonstration that courts can be convinced of anything and that environmental and renewable-energy groups employ clever lawyers. It was a triumph not of scientific insight but of political and legal activism.
Environmental regulation increasingly works this way. Jackson’s zeal for the process will leave its imprint on energy bills to begin arriving at businesses and households across the US very soon.
(Online Dec. 28, 2012; author’s e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)