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EPA Readies GHG Emissions Crackdown -- Unless Congress Acts

The Obama administration last week formally declared that carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions pose a danger to the public's health and welfare, which lays the groundwork for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to more stringently regulate emissions from power plants, refineries, factories and vehicles -- even if Congress fails to enact climate change legislation.

The so-called federal endangerment finding came as the largest climate change conference in history got under way in Copenhagen, Denmark. After proposing the endangerment rule in April, the EPA in November submitted the GHG finding to the White House Office of Management and Budget for interagency review (see NGI, April 20).

EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson announced the ruling, which sets the stage for the agency to begin writing regulations, at a news conference in Washington, DC.

"These long-overdue findings cement 2009's place in history as the year when the United States government began addressing the challenge of greenhouse gas pollution and seizing the opportunity of clean energy reform," Jackson said. "Business leaders, security experts, government officials, concerned citizens and the United States Supreme Court have called for enduring, pragmatic solutions to reduce the greenhouse gas pollution that is causing climate change. This continues our work toward clean energy reform that will cut GHGs and reduce the dependence on foreign oil that threatens our national security and our economy."

EPA's endangerment finding covers emissions of six key greenhouse gases: CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride. The GHGs have been the subject of "scrutiny and intense analysis for decades by scientists in the United States and around the world," said Jackson. "GHGs are the primary driver of climate change, which can lead to hotter, longer heat waves that threaten the health of the sick, poor or elderly; increases in ground-level ozone pollution linked to asthma and other respiratory illnesses; as well as other threats to the health and welfare of Americans."

The EPA's final findings have been in the works for two years after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007 declared that GHGs fit within the Clean Air Act (CAA) definition of air pollutants (see NGI, April 9, 2007). EPA is in charge of implementing the CAA.

"The findings do not in and of themselves impose any emission reduction requirements but rather allow EPA to finalize the GHG standards proposed earlier this year for new light-duty vehicles as part of the joint rulemaking with the Department of Transportation," the agency noted.

On-road vehicles contribute more than 23% of total U.S. GHG emissions, the EPA noted. Its proposed GHG standards for light-duty vehicles, a subset of on-road vehicles, would reduce GHG emissions by nearly 950 million metric tons and conserve 1.8 billion bbl of oil over the lifetime of model year 2012-2016 vehicles.

"Scientific consensus shows that as a result of human activities, GHG concentrations in the atmosphere are at record high levels and data shows that the Earth has been warming over the past 100 years, with the steepest increase in warming in recent decades," EPA said.

"The evidence of human-induced climate change goes beyond observed increases in average surface temperatures; it includes melting ice in the Arctic, melting glaciers around the world, increasing ocean temperatures, rising sea levels, acidification of the oceans due to excess carbon dioxide, changing precipitation patterns, and changing patterns of ecosystems and wildlife."

Jackson noted that she and the president support a "legislative solution" to the problem of climate change and want Congress to enact comprehensive climate legislation. "However, climate change is threatening public health and welfare, and it is critical that EPA fulfill its obligation to respond to the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that determined that greenhouse gases fit within the Clean Air Act definition of air pollutants," she said.

EPA issued the proposed findings in April and held a 60-day public comment period, during which the agency received more than 380,000 comments that were reviewed and considered during the development of the final findings. EPA's findings are available at www.epa.gov/climatechange/endangerment.html.

In late September the EPA announced a proposed "tailoring rule" to limit regulations for some large stationary sources, including coal-burning power plants and cement kilns that emit 25,000 or more tons a year of carbon emissions (see NGI, Oct. 5).

Reaction to the endangerment finding was swift.

Regina Hopper, who helms America's Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA), said her group wanted to "remind the administration and Congress of the important role that natural gas should play in any climate strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. With recent discoveries and technological breakthroughs, the U.S. now has abundant, homegrown supplies of natural gas that can meet our nation's energy needs for generations to come."

Natural gas, said Hopper, "must play a key part in addressing climate change. ANGA will continue to work with policymakers to find credible solutions that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote a strong economy and increase our energy security."

Dan Riedinger, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, a power industry trade group, said the EPA would be less likely than Congress to come up with an "economywide approach" to regulating emissions.

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), the chief architect of the Senate's climate change legislation, said the EPA was sending a "clear signal to Congress" when it issued an endangerment finding. "The message to Congress is crystal clear: Get moving," Kerry said. If Congress doesn't enact climate change legislation, the EPA under the Supreme Court ruling in 2007 is "more than justified" in moving forward to promulgate rules regulating GHG emissions. On Thursday Kerry and Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT), unveiled an outline for climate change legislation that they plan to work on in 2010 (see related story).

Other industry spokespeople expressed outrage at the ruling and said it would cost U.S. jobs.

"Cap-and-trade, carbon taxes and regulation -- from the EPA or by Congress -- will cost more American jobs and increase the price of energy across the board," said Thomas J. Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research. "No matter what the administration says, this announcement, if fully implemented, would fundamentally change the American way of life."

Pyle said Jackson's statements were part of a "meticulously choreographed public relations plan collaborated with the White House in the run-up to the United Nations energy rationing summit in Copenhagen."

EPA's announcement won't do much to address climate change but the action "is certain to come at a huge cost to the economy," said Keith McCoy of the National Association of Manufacturers. Jackson "stated herself that she would prefer Congress address this issue; therefore we are disappointed the EPA chose this power grab move."

Thomas J. Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the endangerment finding "could result in a top-down command-and-control regime that will choke off growth by adding new mandates to virtually every major construction and renovation project." The chamber supports "rational" federal legislation and an international agreement to control global CO2 emissions.

"The devil will be in the details, and we look forward to working with the government to ensure we don't stifle our economic recovery," Donohue said.

American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard said the regulation would be "intrusive, inefficient and excessively costly," and prevent job growth.

"There was no compelling deadline that forced EPA's hand on this decision," Gerard said. "It is a decision that is clearly politically motivated to coincide with the start of the Copenhagen climate summit."

Not surprisingly, environmental groups cheered the announcement.

"The stage is now set for EPA to hold the biggest global warming polluters accountable," said Environment America's Emily Figdor, the group's federal global warming director. "The Senate also must act to set overall pollution-reduction goals and to accelerate the move to clean energy, but it's up to EPA to crack down on pollution from cars and mega industrial polluters, like coal-fired power plants."

Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense Fund, said the "danger of global warming pollution is clear and present, the solutions are at hand, and the time for action is now. It's time for Congress to finish its work on U.S. legislation to cap and reduce the 19 million tons of heat-trapping pollution we emit every day. American leadership on climate change will strengthen our security, wean us off foreign oil and ensure that America wins the race to clean energy innovation in the global marketplace."

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