Editorial: Head fakes and slam dunks

April 12, 2010
A basic maneuver in basketball, US President Barack Obama's favorite sport, is the head fake.

A basic maneuver in basketball, US President Barack Obama's favorite sport, is the head fake. In it, a ball handler turns his or her head one way before dribbling or passing in a different direction. The play works when the defender commits position to the misdirection.

Obama's administration has executed a grand head fake on environmental policy. On Mar. 31 it feinted in one direction on offshore oil and gas leasing. The next day it darted the other way on climate change. Media attention focused on prospects for the first Outer Continental Shelf leasing in 3 decades off the East Coast and new offerings in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. But the Environmental Protection Agency's drive to the basket on climate change was the far more important move.

News and consequence

To be sure, Obama's leasing announcement warranted headlines. Although the plan follows the lead of former President George W. Bush, includes withdrawal of acreage off Alaska, and generally remains very sketchy, it does hint that oil and gas from new areas have a role to play in future energy supply. From this administration, that's news.

But the East Coast leasing gesture will be far less consequential than regulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. That initiative, if it survives legal challenges, represents a dramatic expansion of economic governance. To an American public still wondering what happened to it with health care reform, this assertion of Executive Branch power perhaps is not yet clear.

Indeed, EPA scraped off some potential resistance to its action against a companion announcement by the Department of Transportation about elevated standards for vehicle fuel efficiency. Corporate average fuel economy thresholds for new cars and light trucks are less controversial than GHG regulation and easier to understand. Announced with the GHG rules, the toughened CAFE standards diverted attention from EPA's exercise of authority. In basketball, a maneuver like this is known as a pick.

By itself, EPA's move can seem merely to complement the new CAFE standards. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will increase the fuel-economy thresholds in steps, beginning in 2012, to an industry-wide 34.1 mpg for new cars and trucks in model year 2016. EPA will require that combined average emissions by new cars and light-duty trucks be no higher than 250 g/mile of CO2. According to the agency, if all reductions come from fuel-economy improvements, rather than credits available for air-conditioning improvements, the standard will yield average new-vehicle mileage of 35.5 mpg.

This might seem like benign cooperation by EPA in an effort to cut energy use and affiliated emissions by improving vehicle fuel mileage. But it's a first step into the perilous realm of regulating GHGs as pollutants under authority conveyed by a Supreme Court decision and triggered by EPA's declaration that GHGs threaten public health. It won't be the last.

EPA has indicated its intention to regulate GHGs not only from vehicles but from stationary sources, including refineries, as well. On Apr. 5, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson disclosed plans to start regulating large stationary emitters, under authority she says derives from the rule on mobile sources, in January 2011. The presumption of authority is huge. A group of mining and agricultural interests has petitioned a federal appeals court for review of the plan.

Credit for consistency

EPA deserves credit for consistency. It has said all along that if Congress didn't address GHGs legislatively, it would do so by fiat. Legislation stalled, so EPA acted.

But legislation stalled for a reason. A bill passed by the House is a monument to political mischief. Most senators know doubt is surging about the wisdom of raising energy costs in a weak economy and about the validity of climate-change fear. Polls increasingly show climate change not to be a high-order public concern.

So the administration is doing what it wants to do despite public opinion. What happened on health care reform is happening again on GHG regulation. In basketball, the maneuver is called a slam dunk. In democratic politics, it's cause for ejection.

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