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EPA rules that greenhouse gases are harmful to human health

The EPA's announcement Monday advances two goals: It gives the US more clout at the Copenhagen UN global warming summit, and it nudges Congress to pass new greenhouse gas regulations.

By Staff writer / December 7, 2009

US Environmental Protection Agency Director Lisa Jackson talks about a new Obama administration position that greenhouse gasses are a threat to public health at the EPA in Washington Monday.

Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS

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The US Environmental Protection Agency today announced its final determination that greenhouse gases are a hazard to human health – a widely expected move whose less-than-expected timing came on the first day of climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark.

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The EPA move is likely to give the US negotiating clout at the summit overseas. But it is also seen as the “stick” part of a carrot-and-stick approach that many observers say the Obama administration is using to nudge Congress toward new climate-energy legislation. If the Senate – where the bill is bogged down – won’t act, then it’s clear the EPA now stands ready to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, analysts say.

“This administration will not ignore the science or the law any longer,” Lisa Jackson, EPA Administrator said at a press conference in Washington this afternoon. “Nor will we avoid the responsibility we owe to our children and grandchildren.”

Latest of many changes

While announcing no new timetable for emissions regulations, Ms. Jackson said it was the next logical step for her agency. It undergirded several moves already begun by the administration during the past 11 months, including:

• Establishing a new greenhouse gas emissions-reporting system.

• Mandating that, beginning next month, large US greenhouse-gas emitters work with the EPA to monitor their emissions.

• Requiring that, beginning in 2011, large greenhouse-gas emitters for the first time submit information that will allow tracking of greenhouse-gas emissions over time and be publicly available. The requirement, she said, was being done in a “common sense way” without putting any burden on small businesses.

• Providing a legal foundation for the new Clean Cars program, which is the nation’s first-ever limit on greenhouse gases from US vehicles.

• Requiring that, by spring 2010, large greenhouse-gas emitting facilities use the best available technologies for controlling those emissions when they plan to construct or expand operations.

The EPA move follows a 2007 US Supreme Court decision that greenhouse gases may indeed be regulated under the Clear Air Act’s definition of a pollutant. The Bush Administration refused to issue a finding that greenhouse gases were such a pollutant – even though its EPA scientists had reached that conclusion. Those findings were released in April.

Businesses react

Today’s move was welcomed by some business groups as a positive move to give them more certainty on what federal rules business must meet. But it was met with skepticism by others.

“An endangerment finding from the EPA could result in a top-down command-and-control regime that will chock off growth by adding new mandates to virtually every major construction and renovation project,” Thomas Donahue, president and CEO of the US Chamber of Commerce said in a statement released earlier in the day. “The devil will be in the details.”

The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington policy think tank, says it will file suit to block the EPA’s endangerment finding. In a press release, it warned that “global warming regulation will impose economy-crushing regulations.”

“Today’s decision by EPA will trigger costly and time-consuming permitting requirements for tens of thousands of previously unregulated small businesses under the Clean Air Act,” said Marlow Lewis, a CEI senior fellow. “A more potent anti-stimulus package would be hard to imagine.”

Environmentalists cheer

Environmentalists, however, applauded the move.

“This means the US can go to Copenhagen and negotiate from a position of strength. It shows the world that the Obama administration is serious about tackling the climate problem even if legislation in the Senate falls flat,” says Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, an environmental watchdog group. “It’s also a reminder to the Senate that if they sit on their hands, the Obama EPA is going to do something to regulate these emissions.”

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