The Environmental Protection Agency declared on Monday that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are dangerous pollutants that threaten human health and welfare. That action sets the stage for federal regulation of industrial CO2 sources like coal-fired power plants, refineries and factories.
With world leaders meeting on climate change in Copenhagen, the EPA announcement "couldn't come at a more important time," said Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope. "The Obama administration has followed through on its pledge to act and is demonstrating that the U.S. has turned away from eight years of inaction under the Bush administration."
Shifting to clean energy and "cracking down on the corporations that pollute the water we drink and the air we breathe," Pope said, will help revive our economy while addressing global warming.
Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA had to make an "endangerment finding" - determining that the emissions pose a danger to health - in order to start regulatory action. Such regulation is much feared by the coal and oil industries and other powerful corporate interests, as they would have to spend money cleaning up their emissions.
Announcing the decision, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said, "The vast body of evidence not only remains unassailable, it's grown stronger, and it points to one conclusion. Greenhouse gases from human activity are increasing at unprecedented rates, and are adversely affecting our environment and threatening our health."
The EPA move is seen as the "bad cop" part of a "good cop-bad cop" effort by the Obama administration to get the Senate to pass a climate bill that sets a cap on greenhouse gas emissions. In this view, the House and Senate would be the "good cop," as far as the big polluting industries and their apologists are concerned, since the wheeling and dealing of the legislative process is expected to lead to a bill with less stringent curbs on polluting industries than the EPA is likely to impose.
Senate Republicans, industry lobbyists and far-right groups like the Heritage Foundation have poured enormous resources into trying to block the climate bill. According to the League of Conservation Voters, in the first six months of 2009, "Big Oil and other polluters" spent nearly $120 million on that effort.
They have succeeded so far in stalling Senate action, thereby holding hostage initiatives on green jobs and global warming that are included in the measure passed by the House in June, called the American Clean Energy and Security Act.
The bill is backed by major labor and environmental groups. Steelworkers President Leo Gerard said his union worked closely with House lawmakers to ensure that the measure protects both jobs and the global climate.
The EPA's move to begin issuing regulations could lead some Republicans to drop their opposition to climate legislation. As the New York Times notes, "the mere prospect of regulation has inspired something approaching panic" among industry groups.
U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue inveighed against government-imposed "mandates," saying the EPA action "could result in a top-down command-and-control regime" that will stifle the economy.
Government regulation "is certain to come at a huge cost to the economy," moaned the National Association of Manufacturers, claiming it will cost jobs by raising costs and hurting U.S. industries' competitiveness.
But economist Paul Krugman argues that capping carbon emissions and assigning a cost to those emissions will help the economy by spurring investment in clean energy projects. "Climate change legislation would probably mean more investment over all," he wrote in his New York Times column Dec. 6. "And more investment spending is exactly what the economy needs."
According to the industry-friendly Wall Street Journal, "at the heart of the fight over whether U.S. emission constraints should come from the EPA or Congress is a high-stakes issue: which industries will have to foot the bill for a climate cleanup."
EPA head Lisa Jackson said any new regulations the agency issues would only apply to major greenhouse gas emitters that produce 25,000 tons or more of carbon emissions per year.
Facing such action, those very big emitters, coal-fired power plants and oil and gas refineries, among others, may decide they would rather have a climate change bill that spreads curbs across the economy as a whole.
Photo: National Park Service (commons.wikimedia.org)