In a major, but predictable, turnaround, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week ruled that greenhouse gas emissions are harmful to public health, and, therefore, should be regulated. The decision puts the United States back on track to restrict emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and four other gases, after such action was derailed by the Bush administration.
The EPA action did not include any specifics on how the greenhouse gases would be regulated, nor did it include targets for emissions reductions. That work would best be done by Congress, through an open, public process, rather than the EPA.
Many in Congress are ready to do this work, including Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, who have long worked for higher fuel economy standards, tighter power plant pollution rules and other legislation to reduce climate change.
“Today’s endangerment finding proposed ruling must compel Congress to move past the gridlock and sound bites of the past and work together to expeditiously act to address climate change through a cap-and-trade system,” Sen. Snowe said last week.
“A new regulatory structure is the only way that we can assure that carbon emissions will be reduced in a manner that will be consistent with economic recovery and future economic growth, while protecting the environment and the public’s health and quality of life,” she added.
Fear of tipping the balance too far toward the environment and away from economic growth has led to nearly a decade of inaction on climate change in the U.S. After pledging to regulate carbon emissions as a candidate, George Bush quickly reversed himself after taking office.
In the meantime, large corporations, seeking certainty, began asking for climate change regulations. In 2007, companies including General Electric, Duke Energy, BP and Caterpillar called on Congress to develop a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions that would lead to reductions of 10 per-cent to 30 percent over the next 15 years.
A few months later, 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.
Further, the court ordered the EPA to assess the impact of the gases on human health and the environment. If the agency found that they were not a threat, it had to say why not, the court ruled. Although EPA scientists said the gases posed a threat, the Bush administration continued to stall.
Last week’s EPA announcement, which was based on scientific review that found increased risk of drought, wildfires, sea level rise and flooding from rising greenhouse gas levels, was the result of a reassessment under the Obama administration.
Now comes the difficult work of crafting rules to reduce emissions that build on the work already done by some facilities, such as Maine’s natural gas-fired paper mills. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, of which Maine is a member, can be a helpful guide.
Greenhouse gas regulations have long been expected. So, now is the time for Congress, regulators and industry to find the best way to reduce emissions while also spurring economic growth.