EPA fills Congress’ void

Posted Feb. 14, 2011, at 6:54 p.m.

Republicans in Congress have long said that body, not the Environmental Protection Agency, should set rules for dealing with greenhouse gas emissions. They are absolutely right. But Congress has repeatedly failed to take any action on these climate-change related gases. In the absence of congressional action, the EPA has no choice but to step in.

A dozen bills have been introduced to weaken or delay the EPA’s ability to draft and enforce rules related to the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Some would completely strip that authority. Newt Gingrich, a possible presidential candidate in 2012, has called for eliminating the agency altogether and replacing it with one more business-friendly.

What he and others should recognize is that the country’s business community is split on the issue of reducing carbon emissions. General Electric, Duke Energy and others have long supported a cap-and-trade system to do this.

Of the EPA, William Ruckelshaus, who headed the agency under Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, asked: “What are they supposed to do? Sit there and do nothing?”

Doing nothing means the U.S. will remain dependent on oil from volatile regimes and forgo investment in the next generation of energy technology, which means jobs will be created in other countries, not here. It means that droughts, fires and floods will ravage growing parts of the world, causing food shortages that lead to government overthrows, as the Pentagon warns. Growing numbers of Americans will suffer health problems due to pollution, diminishing their lives and raising health care costs.

In 2009, with a strong push from the U.S. Supreme Court, the EPA determined that greenhouse gas emissions are harmful to public health and therefore should be regulated. It has since been using the Clean Air Act to seek ways to reduce emissions.

Immediately, some in Congress sought ways to block this work.

Last summer, the Senate rejected a resolution that would have stripped the EPA of the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Both Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe voted for the measure, although they recognized the problem of climate change.

“Let me be clear: Global climate change and the development of alternatives to fossil fuels are significant environmental and economic challenges facing our country. The scientific evidence demonstrates the human contribution to climate change, and we must act to mitigate that impact,” Sen. Collins said in June.

“But we must proceed with care and not allow the federal EPA to charge ahead on a problem that affects every aspect of our already fragile economy. Congress, not the EPA, should decide how to regulate greenhouse gas emissions,” she added.

Sen. Olympia Snowe said: “It is Congress — and not unelected bureaucrats — that should be responsible for developing environmental policies that integrate our nation’s economic well-being as an urgent priority along with the reduction of carbon emissions, and I do not accept that these are mutually exclusive goals.”

Congress can do this in a smarter way than the EPA, which by its charter is more focused on environmental concerns rather than economic ones. But it can do so only if it passes legislation.

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