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Senate energy bill: first skirmish over US greenhouse-gas regulation

This week's Senate battle over the energy bill heralds a longer fight on climate change, some analysts say.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 14, 2007

As Congress struggled to shape new energy legislation this week, an equally important fight was shaping up: whether the United States will begin to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions.

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The prospects for such regulation began to emerge this past April when, in a setback for the Bush administration, the US Supreme Court affirmed that the Environmental Protection Agency had the legal authority to regulate emissions. The wrangling this week over the Senate energy bill represents the first skirmish over what could quickly become a full-blown battle over measures to slow climate change.

By the end of the month, the EPA could announce findings that would require it to crack down on emitters of greenhouse gases, says a source familiar with discussions between the White House and EPA.

That may explain why the White House threatened last Friday to veto the energy bill unless it contained a seemingly minor provision to give the Department of Transportation (DOT) authority over auto fuel-economy standards rather than the Environmental Protection Agency. But the language would have effectively stripped the EPA of all authority to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions, thus nullifying the high court's decision in April.

Besides eliminating the EPA as a regulator, such a measure would have also gutted efforts by California and 16 other states to enforce carbon-dioxide emissions requirements for vehicles, environmental legal experts say. Yet a federal court ruling Wednesday upheld California's measures.

"The recent statement of administration policy [threatening a veto] certainly took sharp aim at reversing the Supreme Court's decision confirming EPA's power to regulate global-warming pollution under the Clean Air Act," said Vickie Patton, deputy general counsel for Environmental Defense, a Washington group.

The Senate at press time seemed poised to pass a stripped-down version of the energy bill, which would boost the auto-fuel standards for the first time since the 1970s under the EPA's auspices, as well as boost biofuels. But it would not include controversial measures that would have increased the tax burden on the oil, gas, and coal industries – or required electric utilities to use renewable sources of energy.

Soon, the focus is expected to shift quickly to greenhouse-gas emissions. In line with the high-court ruling, President Bush in May issued an executive order for the EPA to begin working on a new rulemaking process to create standards that reduce carbon from auto emissions – and to work closely with DOT and other agencies. At this point, the legal documents to do so are nearly complete and an EPA announcement is expected before year's end to comply with the Supreme Court's decision.

But in an internal debate last week, EPA chief Stephen Johnson told White House officials unequivocally that the EPA intends to issue an "endangerment finding" for carbon-dioxide emissions, according to one source familiar with the discussion, who asked not to be named because he was not permitted to speak to the press. Such a move could vastly accelerate federal regulation of greenhouse-gas emissions across a range of industries, the source says.

"The EPA has decided to go ahead with broader construction of an endangerment finding. That's what Johnson told the West Wing people – that EPA was going ahead with a strong finding," the source says.