The politics of the EPA’s greenhouse gas decision

The Environmental Protection Agency’s decision that carbon dioxide and five other gases contribute to climate change, and should therefore be regulated, sparked predictable excitement from the green movement and outrage from groups representing carbon emitters.

As we pointed out on Friday, it won’t be clear for quite some time what this means in terms of regulation.

But John Kemp at Reuters believes that administration officials are talking up that lengthy time frame to reassure legislators and business organisations, while telling green groups that they are prepared to go ahead with measures to regulate greenhouse gases even if supporting legislation is not passed.

Part of the complexity of the decision, he says, relates to the components of the Clean Air Act, which is in fact a series of laws passed over three decades. They divide into Title I of the Act, Air Pollution Prevention and Control, and Title II, Emission Standards for Moving Sources.Title I covers all sources of pollution, but Title II applies primarily to motor vehicle.

Both titles refer to emissions that “cause or contribute to air pollution that may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare”.

Kemp writes:

What EPA did on Friday was to publish a determination that found that emissions of CO2 and five other gases contributed to climate change and a threat to public health and welfare in the context of new motor vehicles (Title II). But it was silent on the question of whether emissions of the same gases from other sources such as power plants and industry were also a threat to public health and welfare (under Title I).

In fact, in its formal announcement, the agency was careful to note “EPA is not proposing or taking action under any other provision of the Clean Air Act”. In the accompanying press statement, EPA went further and said “An endangerment finding under one provision of the Clean Air Act would not by itself automatically trigger regulation under the entire Act”.

This explains why the decision specifically referred to “new motor vehicles and motor vehicle engines” without mentioning any other sources of emissions. But as Kemp notes, only four of the six gases identified by the EPA as contributing to climate change are actually emitted by cars. He writes:

*It is far from clear the Act was intended for this purpose; the Supreme Court is divided and this approach to regulation depends on the continuing support of a narrow base of five justices, including swing-voter Justice Anthony Kennedy.

*It would turn the EPA into one of the country’s top economic and business regulators (a task for which it is not well suited).

*It would provoke howls of rage from Congress about by-passing the normal legislative process, a criticism to which Democrats are sensitive having accused the Bush administration of much the same thing during its eight years in office. The party is wary of being blamed for raising energy costs for ordinary businesses and consumers without some political cover.

Related stories:

EPA decision: The real impact is some way off (FT Energy Source)

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