The E.P.A.’s Lisa Jackson released a statement yesterday that announced the formal findings for carbon dioxide being labeled as dangerous to public health in the United States and thereby exercising its ability to regulate it under the Clean Air Act. An E.P.A. move to regulate greenhouse gases could effectively sidestep Congress which has stumbled with its attempts to pass climate legislation. Undoubtedly, this could mark one of the most powerful and proactive stances of any administration towards addressing climate change, but it could also merely be political noise used as a stop gap to try and bolster confidence both nationally and internationally in the Obama administration’s environmental agenda.
Mrs. Jackson’s speech had a distinctive activist tone, continually remarking on the overdue responsibility of the U.S. to be a leader in addressing greenhouse gas emissions.
This long-overdue finding cements 2009’s place in history as the year when the United States Government began seriously addressing the challenge of greenhouse gas pollution and seizing the opportunity of clean-energy reform.
The findings set out a road map of possibility; a series of steps that the E.P.A. could take to directly intervene in how our country deals with carbon emissions. The first step, set to begin in 2011, includes requiring facilities that emit over 25,000 tons of carbon annually to monitor and report those emissions to the E.P.A. Other measures could include a more direct and hands-on role in curbing the emissions from vehicles and requiring emitting facilities, particularly power generation companies, to employ the best available technologies to deal with greenhouse gases. This could mean that companies would no longer be allowed to sit idle on technologies that exist to improve efficiency and cleaner operation.
Opposing stances were quick to arise from parties like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce who argue that strict measures could hinder economic growth due to the added costs associated with carbon regulation. Given our recession environment, this is by far the strongest attack on carbon policy and the worries are not completely unfounded. Some degree of added cost will likely find power producers and industrial manufacturers that could, in turn, trickle down to higher prices for the end user, but I am not one that believes this is a reason not to proceed.
As a country now famous for its deficits, our low priced goods and services are a bit of an illusion that we support either at our own delayed, tax-paying expense or at the expense of the environment. We have been running countless environmental deficits for decades and are only now finding out the degree of what they are and how much they truly “cost.” If regulating carbon means that the price of power increases then maybe that means that producing power the right way is simply more expensive than we have allowed ourselves to believe.
However, planning for widespread, overarching regulation by the E.P.A. maybe a bit preemptive at this point because it is possible that this is merely some fancy political footwork to buy the Obama administration some time. The timing of the release in relation to the Copenhagen Climate Summit is far from coincidental and undoubtedly meant to supplement our lack of ability to create proactive climate legislation. At the same time, the announcement lights a fire underneath Senators and lobbyists to get a finalized bill passed to avoid E.P.A. intervention. Business interests know that compromising on climate legislation allows for their input in reaching a bargain. E.P.A. regulation does not need to ask anyone’s opinion when operating under the umbrella of the Clean Air Act. The President has also already stated that he prefers legislative action for managing carbon over unilateral direction by a governmental agency.
Furthermore, even if the E.P.A. was prepared and willing to police carbon for the country, it would likely be years before any real weight of change would be felt. We are still over a year away from merely reporting numbers let alone forcing companies to implement technologies to change them. When the possibilities of lawsuits are added in, it is much more likely that we will see climate legislation passed before the E.P.A. ever has the chance to draw lines in the sand.
As much as I would welcome a chance to move faster and cut through red tape, I fear it is more likely that this a political threat that the administration has little intention of actually exercising. That is not to say that it will not work. These efforts may help us secure a climate bill in the first half of 2010. If not, I only hope the administration has the brass to call the bluff of congress and the business community if no progress is made.