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Carbon emissions pose danger, EPA finds

Agency’s move lays the foundation for expanding US regulation of thousands of companies.

By Staff writer / April 17, 2009

Power plants' carbon-dioxide emissions would be subject to regulation under a new EPA finding that CO2 endangers human health and the environment. This coal-fired plant is in San Juan County, N.M.

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In deciding that carbon dioxide poses a danger to human health and the environment, the Environmental Protection Agency has laid the groundwork for new and expansive federal oversight of carmakers, utilities, and a host of other large emitters of the greenhouse gas.

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The EPA’s finding, announced Friday, is likely to act as a big nudge to Congress to take quicker action on new energy and climate legislation that sets carbon-emissions limits. Many lawmakers and companies would prefer to see limits set by Congress rather than regulations set by the EPA. Indeed, the Obama administration has made clear that it, too, prefers a legislative approach.

The finding also bolsters the Obama administration's standing heading into international talks in December on addressing climate change, in that it is the most assertive stance yet taken by the United States. Moreover, it may also pave the way for the Securities and Exchange Commission, which keeps watch over Wall Street, to require companies to disclose carbon-emissions costs and liabilities that could affect their businesses.

In adding carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases to the list of compounds that can be regulated under the Clean Air Act, the EPA creates a legal basis for limiting CO2 emitted from tailpipes – an authority the US Supreme Court has said the agency could claim but that the Bush administration declined. Automobiles are a major source of C02, and the EPA action Friday signals that the Obama administration intends to take a more aggressive approach to addressing global warming.

“This is a victory for the Clean Air Act,” said Martin Hayden of Earthjustice, an environmental group, in a statement after the EPA issued its finding. “The Obama administration has removed a road block in curbing pollution responsible for climate change and signaled a turn toward a clean energy future. We applaud this action and welcome the president’s leadership to overcome the greatest environmental challenge of our time.”

Too much expense to bear?

Others, however, say the prospect that scores of industries and thousands of companies may soon be required to comply with a new environmental regulation is an outrage, especially given the flattened state of the US economy. In a recent letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, conservative taxpayer and political groups, led by the Competitive Enterprise Institute think tank, declared that the agency’s action “will set the stage for an economic train wreck.” The EPA finding represents a “potent antistimulus package,” CEI senior fellow Marlo Lewis said in a statement.

The worry is that the finding will cover not only vehicle tailpipe emissions of CO2, but also all stationary sources spewing more than 250 tons per year, the CEI argues. Former EPA chief Stephen Johnson, an appointee of President Bush, raised that possibility in a letter last summer.

Environmentalists dismiss as “scare tactics” the claims that myriad businesses will be shuttered and the minutia of daily life will be regulated as a result of the EPA action.
“There are a number of scare stories out there..., the premise of which is that if EPA does anything under any part of the Clean Air Act, it will necessarily have to do everything everywhere to any imaginable source of carbon dioxide,” said David Doniger, policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a telephone briefing with reporters April 14. “That’s just not true.”