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Ocean acidification: another path to EPA rules on carbon emissions?

In a legal settlement Thursday, the EPA agreed to help states test coastal waters for acidity, and to weigh whether to tighten rules on carbon emissions to address ocean acidification.

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The notion of an expanded EPA role isn't new. The pH of coastal waters has been regulated since 1976. Last year, the EPA began digging into the issue, seeking a broad range of information on the topic as it relates to human CO2 emissions.

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But given the resistance in Congress and in corporate boardrooms to the prospect that the EPA would regulate CO2 emissions under the Clean Air Act, the settlement's small step toward cracking down on CO2 emissions via the Clean Water Act represents another "oh, no" moment.

Yet as a practical matter, any meaningful regulation may be at least a decade away, even if opposition to the effort could be swept aside.

A lack of baseline information on the pH of coastal waters is one stumbling block.

"I've been monitoring these changes for the past 30 years," says Richard Feeley, a marine scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle. "There's no doubt these changes are occurring and that they are man-made changes."

Moreover, he adds, only three sites currently have data on ocean pH that span a sufficient amount of time to be useful to regulators. One is in Monterey Bay off California. The other two are open-ocean sites.

At a minimum, regulators would need at least a decade's worth of data at each of dozens of sites along a coastline to be able to confidently detect trends.

And only a handful of labs around the country are set up to make the precise pH measurements any regulations would require. "The changes we expect to see are about 0.002 pH units a year," Dr. Feeley says.

Moreover, a dearth of information on the biological effects of increased acidity still exists, adds Scott Doney, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass. Several important lab studies have been conducted, along with field studies, that have raised red flags. "But there's not a lot of information yet," he says, especially on an ecosystem-wide basis.

Still, Feeley says, the settlement represents an important new step as the EPA gathers information "on the kinds of criteria they should be thinking about."

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