EDITORIALS

The EPA sidestepped Congress with carbon emissions rule? What hot air

Steam rises from the stacks of the coal-fired Jim Bridger Power Plant outside Point of the Rocks, Wyoming, in this March 2014 file photo.
JIM URQUHART | REUTERS
Steam rises from the stacks of the coal-fired Jim Bridger Power Plant outside Point of the Rocks, Wyoming, in this March 2014 file photo.
Posted June 08, 2014, at 10:14 a.m.
Last modified June 09, 2014, at 4:56 p.m.

When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced new rules June 2 to curb greenhouse gas emissions, some Republicans denounced the measure by saying the EPA was sidestepping Congress. The criticism fell flat. Yes, Congress absolutely should have crafted a way to reduce emissions. But it has repeatedly failed to do so. With clear data showing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases increasing significantly compared with historic levels, was the agency supposed to do nothing?

The proposed rule, which will now undergo public review, would set guidelines for states to follow in crafting plans to curb emissions from fossil fuel-fired electric generating plants. Nationwide, the EPA estimates the rule would reduce the power sector’s carbon dioxide output 30 percent by 2030 compared with carbon emissions in 2005. Electric power plants account for 38 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions, according to the EPA.

In Maine, power plants would have to reduce their emissions by 13.5 percent in 16 years — a rate the state may have met anyway through necessary plant upgrades and efficiencies, continued participation in the cap and trade Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and clean energy investments.

The real benefits of the proposed rule for Maine would come from creating the potential for a more stable future environment — one with, we hope, cleaner air and fewer climate change hazards — especially since the state is downwind from the dirty power plants of the Midwest. But of course this rule wouldn’t put a great dent in worldwide emissions unless other countries, namely India and China, followed suit, and this country did much more to replace fossil fuels with cleaner alternatives.

Still, some industry leaders and coal-friendly state officials will continue to oppose the proposed rule, arguing it could hurt the economy. Even before the details of the plan were released, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said it would lower U.S. gross domestic product by more than $50 billion on average every year through 2030. As economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman pointed out, however, even if the chamber’s cost estimate isn’t inflated, it only equals one-fifth of 1 percent of the country’s income — probably a reasonable price to pay for the possibility of a healthier and safer planet.

The Pentagon acknowledges climate change as a national security threat. And many businesses support carbon reduction, including General Electric, Wal-Mart, Nike and others. Ice cream maker Ben and Jerry’s put it this way: “Averting a planetary meltdown (we know a little something about what happens when things melt) requires leadership for governments and business.”

Yet it seems inevitable that politicians and supporters of the coal industry will challenge the EPA’s future rule, likely in Congress or the courts. Some might try to use the disingenuous argument that the EPA circumvented Congress. Don’t buy it.

Under the Bush administration, the EPA claimed it didn’t have authority to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act, and its view was challenged. In 2007, the Supreme Court disagreed with the EPA, ruling in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency that, “Given EPA’s failure to dispute the existence of a causal connection between man-made greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, its refusal to regulate such emissions, at a minimum, ‘contributes’ to Massachusetts’ injuries.”

It ruled that emissions do fall under the law’s definition of “air pollutant,” and it directed the EPA to determine whether those emissions harm health and the environment. The EPA issued an “endangerment finding” in 2009. It said carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluorides “threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations.” Today’s proposed regulations are based on that finding.

Members of Congress periodically introduce unsuccessful bills to cut carbon emissions or limit the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon. It has accomplished nothing at the scale of the EPA’s current proposed rule. People should know better than to say, “Let Congress handle it.” We wish it would, but to do so it would have to pass legislation.

 

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