It began way back in 2007, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v. EPA that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 1) could not decline states' requests to issue emission standards for new motor vehicles under the Clean Air Act; and 2) had the authority, under that Act, to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
So the EPA embarked on a rulemaking process to determine if greenhouse gases are indeed a dangerous pollutant that merits regulation under the Clean Air Act and to set rules with the Department of Transportation regulating the emissions of new light-duty vehicles.
Fast forward to December 2009 and the EPA announces that - no surprise here - greenhouse gases (GHGs) are a dangerous pollutant. In its news release on the subject, the EPA said:
- Greenhouse gases threaten public health and the environment
- Science overwhelmingly shows greenhouse gas concentrations at unprecedented levels due to human activity
- GHG emissions from on-road vehicles contribute to the public health and environmental threat
The EPA's proposed rule for light-duty vehicles would, according to the agency, reduce GHG emissions by 950 million metric tons and conserve 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the lifetime of model year 2012-2016 vehicles.
The EPA is a regulatory agency and, as such, regulates all manner of economic activity that affects the air we breathe and the water we drink, swim in, and boat on. Yet the agency's move to regulate greenhouse gases, seen by some as a preemption of already-in-the-works climate change legislation by Congress, has ignited a firestorm.
Last April, well before the EPA issued its final statement (the agency had just opened the issue to public commenting), the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation published "Five Reasons the EPA Should Not Attempt to Deal with Global Warming." Heritage argued that the EPA's proposed greenhouse gas emissions regulations would: 1) kill an already-sick economy; 2) provide "negligible" environmental benefit; 3) be based on a "lack of scientific consensus" that GHG emissions are making the world warmer; 4) amount to "unelected and unaccountable EPA bureaucrats are trying to bypass legislative efforts"; and 5) would be a "chilling shift to a command-and-control system in which EPA officials regulate just about every aspect of the market."
A few weeks ago the U.S. Senate took up the issue, debating a resolution proposed by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), which would have taken away the EPA's power to regulate GHG emissions. The resolution failed 47 to 53. The debate lasted a full day, with Democrats breaking out full-size posters of dead birds coated in oil and Republicans warning that the EPA's regulation of GHG emissions was an unprecedented power grab that would cost millions of American jobs.
Not so fast
I've blogged recently about using caution when extrapolating the tragedy of oil-coated Gulf birds to our needs for cleaner, safer energy. And I agree that heavy-handed ("command-and-control" if you will) bureaucratic regulation is a cold January morning to the economy's molasses. But I'm skeptical about the assertion that regulating GHG emissions would bring down the U.S. economy like the Heritage Foundation and some senators suggest.
I haven't seen any credible evidence that sweeping EPA regulations like the Clean Air Act (which has since 1990 regulated other types of emissions) and the Clean Water Act have yielded net negative economic impacts - especially when we take into account the public health and environmental benefits they have generated.
That said, I think it would be far better for Congress to enact comprehensive legislation that draws us a very clear roadmap for our energy future. Our energy providers - and energy consumers - deserve to be able to plan for the dramatic changes that will inevitably accompany any type of emission regulations. Yet it's certainty that is the key.
If Congress fails to act to give energy both utilities and energy consumers the certainty we need to plan for the future, then I think there are models within which the EPA could regulate GHG emissions well, if reasonably implemented. Writing in the Washington Post, Richard L. Revesz, who is dean of NYU's School of Law and co-founder of the Institute for Policy Integrity, cited the example of the EPA's regulation of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides (which cause acid rain).
The EPA's regulation of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides also falls within the Clean Air Act, and has been effective at dramatically reducing the levels of acid rain (those levels have dropped 65% since 1976, according to the Pacific Research Institute). Acid rain regulations rely on market-based allowances, which allow regulated utilities (primarily coal-burning power plants) to buy and sell emissions allowances. That enables utilities to cut their emissions at the lowest overall cost.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves here. There is hope that Congress will take up the energy/climate bill again before elections in November - or perhaps in a lame duck session just after the election. Let's give lawmakers a chance to do what we elect them to do - make comprehensive national laws.
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