Emissions Backtrack

Posted Feb. 09, 2010, at 5:56 p.m.

Last year — finally — the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided that greenhouse gas emissions are harmful to public health, and, therefore, should be regulated. The overdue decision came with a strong push from the U.S. Supreme Court.

Now, a group of Republican senators is working to overturn the EPA decision. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins have not joined them.

Earlier this year, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she planned to introduce an amendment to prevent the EPA from moving ahead with regulations on greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide. The Congressional Disapproval Resolution could be introduced later this month. She said the move was needed to ensure a more balanced approach to climate change. Stopping regulation of greenhouse gases, which is years overdue, is not a balanced approach.

Many believe Sen. Murkowski is trying to protect Alaska’s large and powerful oil and gas interests, although she has long talked about the danger that climate change presents to her state.

A better approach, one long supported by Sens. Snowe and Collins, is for Congress to write rules for emission reductions through an open, public process. Many large polluters, including power companies, large manufacturers and chemical makers, have long asked for such regulations, including a cap-and-trade system, from Congress.

Although expressing concern about regulating greenhouse gas emissions through the Clean Air Act, Sen. Snowe believes the EPA must retain this authority. “Completely eliminating EPA’s current authority under the Clean Air Act without a constructive alternative fails to address our energy insecurity as well as the critical issue of climate change,” she said this week.

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the EPA had the authority to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from cars. The agency, under the Bush administration, had argued that carbon dioxide was not a pollutant so the federal government could not regulate it.

Two years later, the EPA said it had concluded that the gases did pose a threat to human health and that it would develop regulations. The agency’s scientific review found increased risk of drought, wildfires, sea level rise and flooding from rising greenhouse gas levels.

Unless Sen. Murkowski has shown that these threats have gone away, her resolution is misplaced.

At the same time, a recent poll by Republican pollster Frank Luntz found that the economic consequences of climate change — and how countries and industries adjust to it — are more persuasive to the public than the talk of shrinking glaciers and imperiled animals. More than half those polled said the U.S. should address climate change to create jobs here rather than oversees. A quarter said it should be addressed to make our energy supply healthier and more secure.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, of which Maine is a member, can be a helpful guide. Through it, emissions are being reducing while building on the work already done by some facilities, such as Maine’s natural gas-fired paper mills.

Greenhouse gas regulations have long been needed and expected. So, now is the time for Congress, regulators and industry to find the best way to reduce emissions while also spurring economic growth.

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