WASHINGTON, Apr 17 (IPS) – U.S. green groups hailed Friday’s formal finding by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that carbon dioxide and several other greenhouse gases ‘endanger’ public health and welfare as a landmark – if long overdue – step toward slowing global warming.

They said the finding, which gives the EPA the authority to regulate emissions under the Clean Air Act, should add to pressure on Congress to enact its own legislation establishing national standards and reduction targets as early as this year, possibly before December’s U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen, the first formal effort to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

‘Where the Bush administration lagged, the Obama administration is now leading,’ said David Bookbinder, the Sierra Club’s chief climate counsel. ‘There is no longer a question of if or even when the U.S. will act on global warming. We are doing so now,’ he added.

‘At long last, the EPA has officially recognised that carbon pollution is harmful to our health and to the climate,’ said David Doniger, a climate specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). ‘The heat-trapping pollution from our cars and power plants leads to killer heat waves, stronger hurricanes, higher smog levels, and many other direct and indirect threats to human health.’

‘Today’s action is an important step toward making our climate and our planet safer for future generations,’ he added.

The EPA’s finding, which was announced by its administrator, Lisa Jackson, after being cleared by the White House, marks the culmination of a 10-year administrative and judicial battle whose previous high-water mark came in a 2007 Supreme Court decision that ordered the agency to determine whether CO2 and other heat-trapping gases qualified as ‘pollutants’ under the Clean Air Act and rebuked the Bush administration for failing to have done so. A number of states and green groups brought the case.

Despite an abundance of evidence and a virtually universal consensus among public-health experts – not to mention climate scientists – that greenhouse gases were indeed hazardous to human health and the ecosystems and climate on which it depends, the Bush administration spent the remainder of its term ‘studying’ the issue without reaching a conclusion.

Jackson, an Obama appointee, said evidence amassed by the EPA and its scientists in support of the conclusion that CO2 and other gases – including methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride – constituted a danger to human health and welfare that was ‘compelling and overwhelming’ and that greenhouse gas pollution is ‘a serious problem now and for future generations.’

‘Fortunately,’ she added, ‘it follows President Obama’s call for a low-carbon economy and strong leadership in Congress on clean energy and climate legislation.’

Friday’s finding sets off a 60-day comment period during which the EPA will prepare regulations and the public and other interested parties are invited to comment.

While Jackson did not disclose details of the EPA’s regulation plans, experts say the agency will likely begin by setting national emission standards for new motor vehicles first. Cars and trucks currently account for about 20 percent of total U.S. greenhouse emissions.

The EPA is already considering an appeal by California and 13 other states – denied by the Bush administration – to set substantially tougher emission standards for new automobiles than those set by the federal government. With Friday’s decision, some experts believe the EPA may adopt California’s proposed standards, which would cut greenhouse emission by 30 percent in new cars and trucks by 2016.

The cash-strapped auto industry, which has long opposed stricter fuel standards, insisted Friday that it ‘share(s) the same goal as the administration in reducing emissions.’

‘We are hopeful that the Obama administration can find ways to bridge state and federal concerns, and move all stakeholders towards an aggressive national, fuel economy/greenhouse gas emissions programme administered by the federal government,’ said Dave McCurdy, president and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

After tackling automobiles, the EPA will likely move to regulate coal-fired power plants, which account for about 40 percent of total U.S. emissions, and other major emitters, notably chemical and cement manufacturers, according to experts.

Manufacturing and other business groups that may be affected by EPA regulations have warned that tough governmental action now could make economic recovery much more difficult and that they intend to challenge specific regulations in the courts, arguing that the Clean Air Act was not, in the words of Karen Harbert, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, ‘created or intended for (the) purpose of regulating greenhouse gas emissions.’

‘Any future regulations could impact American households and large and small businesses,’ she said. ‘Therefore, the business community has a vital contribution to make in this debate and in detailing the consequences on our nation’s economic growth and recovery.’

In her announcement, Jackson stressed that the administration prefers that Congress enact comprehensive climate-related legislation to relying on the EPA’s regulatory authority under the Clean Air Act.

A number of observers said Friday they thought business interests, concerned that they would enjoy less influence over the regulatory process, would also prefer Congress to act, if only because they are likely to receive more favourable treatment.

Indeed, Greenpeace, which hailed Friday’s announcement, warned against precisely that possibility, noting that the decade-long fight for regulating greenhouse gases had shown that ‘industry will exploit every ambiguity, every gap and every loophole in legislation to avoid real climate action as much and as long as possible.’

‘We are optimistic that this decision will spur Congress to adopt strong and comprehensive legislation this year to stop global warming. But that legislation shouldn’t replace existing authorities under the Clean Air Act or other laws with new standards that are potentially weaker,’ said Carroll Muffett, Greenpeace USA’s deputy campaigns director. ‘The ability to finally use the Clean Air Act as one tool in our fight against global warming was hard won, and should not be sacrificed lightly.’

Obama has asked Congress to adopt a cap-and-trade system to cap greenhouse emissions in key sectors with the eventual goal of reducing emissions by 80 percent over current levels by 2050.

Hearings on legislation recently introduced by two leading Democrats, the new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Henry Waxman, and Edward Markey, that provide for such a system and also include major investments in alternative and renewable energy sources, are scheduled to begin next week. Its sponsors hope it will be sent to the House floor by the end of May.