With the U.S. Supreme Court peering over its shoulder and Congress turning up the political heat, the Bush administration is moving toward some sort of action on the climate-changing greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2).
But what administration officials see as responsible deliberation – seeking public comment later this spring before acting under the federal Clean Air Act – critics charge is foot-dragging. Rep. Ed Markey (D) of Massachusetts, chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, calls it "running out the clock" before the next president takes over in 10 months.
Not so, says Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson. Mr. Johnson's reason for going more slowly is that dealing with CO2 needs to be seen in a broader context: not just motor vehicles (which account for about 30 percent of the US total), but also such stationary sources as power plants, oil refineries, and cement and other manufacturers. In a letter to lawmakers quoted by the Associated Press he wrote:
"Rather than rushing to judgment on a single issue this approach allows us to examine all the potential effects of a decision with the benefit of the public's insight."
Johnson has supporters among industry groups and conservative analysts. The Edison Electric Institute, which represents big utilities, said it's glad the EPA realizes the broad potential of carbon regulation. Reuters reported:
" 'It's appropriate that the EPA fully understands the consequences of using the Clean Air Act tool to address greenhouse gases,' said John Kinsman, the group's senior director for the environment. US utilities generally favor a legislative fix to carbon dioxide emissions rather than a regulatory one, which could be challenged and delayed by lawsuits."
Heritage Foundation energy and environment policy analyst Ben Lieberman warns that any short-term effort to substantially curtail CO2 emissions "would have extremely costly and disruptive impacts on the economy and on living standards." He continues:
"The kind of industrial-strength EPA red tape that routinely imposes hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in compliance costs in a process that can drag on for a year or more could now be imposed for the first time on many commercial buildings, farms, and all but the smallest of businesses."
Since it first moved into the White House seven years ago, the Bush administration has resisted efforts to treat CO2 as a pollutant that is largely responsible for global climate change.
But the Supreme Court ruled a year ago that carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is subject to the Clean Air Act. If such emissions are a danger to public health and welfare, the court said, the EPA must regulate them – in particular, emissions from motor vehicles.
"EPA staffers told the Times they had concluded that such greenhouse gases were a major threat to water supplies, crops, wildlife, and other aspects of public welfare, and their finding was forwarded to the White House for review in December. In addition, under orders from Johnson, the staff last fall completed a draft regulation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles."
"… the administration – despite all the blather about Mr. Bush's newfound awareness of the dangers of climate change – has again refused to do anything about the problem, wasting another year in a struggle in which time is no one's friend."
Congressional Quarterly reported that Representative Markey wants to subpoena the EPA for its failure to turn over documents related to global warming, including the EPA's draft proposal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
The political sniping between Congress and the White House over greenhouse gases and global warming comes the same week that former vice president Al Gore launched a three-year, $300-million campaign to mobilize Americans to push for big reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, a move The Washington Post calls "one of the most ambitious and costly public advocacy campaigns in US history." The Post story continues:
"The Alliance for Climate Protection's 'we' campaign will employ online organizing and television advertisements on shows ranging from 'American Idol' to 'The Daily Show With Jon Stewart." It highlights the extent to which Americans' growing awareness of global warming has yet to translate into national policy changes…. One of its early ads will feature the unlikely alliance of clergymen Pat Robertson and Al Sharpton sitting on a couch on Virginia Beach, talking about their commitment to address climate change."