Will EPA regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses?

04/14/09 Seán Kinane
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In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that greenhouse gasses are considered pollutants under the federal Clean Air Act. That decision required the Environmental Protection Agency to determine whether carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses cause pollution that endangers public health and welfare. Some environmental groups think the EPA could announce as early as Thursday that those gasses do constitute a danger. In doing so, the EPA will declare its authority to hold greenhouse gas polluters accountable under the Clean Air Act.

In 1999, Joe Mendelson, an attorney and global warming policy director with the National Wildlife Federation, drafted and filed a legal petition requesting that the EPA regulate pollution that causes global warming. Their petition was denied in 2003, which led to a case known as Massachusetts v. EPA. Two years ago the Supreme Court ruled that the “EPA has statutory authority to regulate emission of such gases from new motor vehicles.” Mendelson was one of the attorneys making that argument.

“This will be the largest step that the federal government will have taken to date on fighting climate change. And it will be the first step toward what we expect to be mandatory reductions in U.S. global warming pollution.”

In a phone conference on Tuesday, several environmental groups said they anticipate that the EPA will announce their intention to regulate emissions of the gasses that cause climate change. That's based on a draft technical support document from the EPA that focuses on how United States citizens are affected by the emissions. Amanda Staudt is a climate scientist with the National Wildlife Federation.

“Global warming will affect human health in at least five ways. First, there’s expected to be increased heat-related mortality and morbidity during heat wave days. Second, we’re going to see enhanced formation of ground-level ozone pollution, leading to degraded air quality. Third, the trend toward more severe storms will lead to increases in fatalities, injuries, and water quality problems when we have these events. Fourth, global warming is expected to increase the spread of infectious diseases. And finally, there’s a potential that global warming could increase incidents of airborne allergens.”

Staudt says these health effects would disproportionately affect poor, elderly and urban populations, which makes climate disruption an important environmental justice issue.

A decision by the EPA to rule that 1970’s federal Clean Air Act applies to emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses would apply first to vehicles. It would likely deal with other sources like power plants, in the future, according to David Doniger, Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate center policy director.

“Since this case, Mass. v. EPA, was directly about the petition to regulate motor vehicle regulations, there is a strong anticipation that the endangerment determination, if and when it’s made, will focus on the contribution of motor vehicle emissions to the global warming pollution that’s endangering our health and our welfare. And that would trigger the responsibility to set national greenhouse gas emissions for new vehicles under Section 202 of the Clean Air Act.”

The Sierra Club’s chief climate counsel, David Bookbinder, says that if the EPA does regulate greenhouse gas emissions, states would likely follow with restrictions of their own.

“With an endangerment finding, I expect we will see states being far more aggressive in setting limits on sources within their state, most particularly from industrial sources – power plants and other large industrial sources.”

In December, world leaders will convene in Copenhagen, Denmark for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. According to the website of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, its purpose is to “shape an ambitious and effective international response to climate change.” Environment America is an alliance of state-based environmental advocacy organizations. Their federal global warming program director, Emily Figdor, says that regulation of greenhouse gasses by the EPA could demonstrate to other participants in Copenhagen that the United States is willing to get serious about global climate disruption.

“The world is waiting for the United States to step up to the plate. And EPA action under the Clean Air Act clearly demonstrates that the United States is getting to work solving global warming.”

Some critics have claimed that the Clean Air Act does not give the EPA the authority to regulate pollution that results in international problems, such as global climate change. But the Sierra Club’s David Bookbinder says there’s no credence to that argument.

“Unless we show that we are capable and willing to regulate and limit our emissions, we are not going to get an international agreement. And the Clean Air Act is a very useful mechanism because it can reach out.”

Environment America’s Emily Figdor says that after the EPA decides to regulate carbon dioxide and the emissions of other greenhouse gasses, the United States Congress should also play a role.

“Congress will set an overall framework for transitioning the clean energy economy and stopping global warming. And then EPA’s role is to actually ensure that specific sources of pollution are actually transitioning from the dirty, polluting sources that we’ve relied on in the past to clean energy sources so that we’re making progress in all parts of our economy as we make that transition. So, the two – Congressional action and action at EPA – really go hand in hand, both are essential.”

The EPA has not yet announced its plans for regulating greenhouse gas emissions.


Mass. v. EPA

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

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