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EPA Sidesteps Regulating Greenhouse Gases

July 11, 2008 at 6:25 PM EDT
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The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday delayed making a decision about whether human health and welfare are being harmed by greenhouse gas pollution. In a federal notice, the agency instead called for more public comment, essentially bumping the decision to the next administration.

RAY SUAREZ: The fight has been brewing throughout President Bush’s term: Should the federal government create new regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

A number of states and environmental groups brought the Bush administration to court to force its hand. In April 2007, the Supreme Court ruled the EPA did have the authority to issue new rules, if it determined that emissions were harmful to people’s health.

But today the EPA announced it would not do so before the end of the president’s term.

For more on this decision and what’s behind it, we turn to Dina Cappiello. She covers energy and the environment for the Associated Press.

And, Dina, the Supreme Court said they should do it. The EPA’s own scientists said they should do it. How did the EPA administrator explain why the agency has decided not to regulate greenhouse gasses?

DINA CAPPIELLO, Associated Press: Well, the agency basically said that the tools that they have — the Clean Air Act, primarily — is not going to work for this problem. It’s inadequate. He called it “ill-suited” to address greenhouse gasses. And they just felt they needed new tools and said Congress needs to act and do something about the problem.

RAY SUAREZ: So when he says “new tools,” he means that the legislative branch should pass a law, rather than the EPA issuing a ruling?

DINA CAPPIELLO: Absolutely. He referred to it in a conference call with reporters as putting a square peg in a round hole. Regulating carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is a totally different ballgame than what the Clean Air Act has been used for previously, which is sulfur dioxide with acid rain, nitrous dioxide for smog.

RAY SUAREZ: Has there been conflict inside the EPA and between the EPA and the White House?

DINA CAPPIELLO: Absolutely, and that was definitely not settled today. I mean, basically what the EPA did today is they released what they call an advanced notice of proposed rule-making. This is the first step in a very lengthy process to get to a final rule.

And that basically was what we saw earlier this month and in May and what the staff put out. But then on top of that, they basically put heavy criticisms from not only the White House, but the Agricultural Department, the Commerce Department, the Transportation Department, and the Energy Department.

And so they kind of gave a mixed message, saying, “Our staff said this, but we really don’t feel we want to do that today.”

Classifying the problem in law

RAY SUAREZ: Well, a lot of the conflict seems to revolve around whether or not it's been officially determined that global warming, global climate change has an impact on human health. And if I understand this correctly, the White House is not allowing the EPA to treat it as settled policy.

DINA CAPPIELLO: Absolutely. Absolutely. And they were silent on that. I mean, that is the trigger to regulation, you have to first decide whether the pollutant affects human health and public welfare.

And the agency tried to do that in December, and the White House basically told them to recall that finding. And they were silent on that today, because if they made that finding, the law and the Supreme Court decision would compel them to act under the Clean Air Act and to start regulating greenhouse gasses.

RAY SUAREZ: So you're saying that the EPA tried to declare publicly that global warming harms human health?

DINA CAPPIELLO: Well, they attempted to, yes. They told the White House what they wanted to do. And the White House said, "We really don't want to do that. Take it back," was what happened in December.

RAY SUAREZ: So that's the story about the e-mail from the EPA that the White House refused to read?

DINA CAPPIELLO: Yes, yes, absolutely. They sent over an e-mail. And in that e-mail was apparently what we call an endangerment finding. This is how they -- was what they say, it affects human health and welfare. And, therefore, we've got to regulate it, not only for motor vehicles, but also stationary sources.

I mean, once you determine it's bad for human health and the environment, it's not just cars. It also goes to power plants, et cetera. And basically the White House said, "Hey, we want you to take that e-mail back."

Laws will wait until 2009

RAY SUAREZ: Now, given how long it takes to write rules in this area of the law and given how little time there is left in the Bush administration, this part of regulation is effectively dead for the rest of the Bush administration?

DINA CAPPIELLO: Absolutely. This is the final word in the Bush administration. I mean, I think that everybody that's been close to this issue has saw this coming, so to speak, but I think what was surprising today is basically that the EPA staff said, "Let's do something about it." And basically the secretaries of all the other agencies said, "We don't want to."

And so this basically settles it for this administration. This is going to be something that the next president and Congress next year will have to take up.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, the EPA administrator, Steve Johnson, said, "I know some people are going to say that we're just kicking the can down the road," but then he said that that wasn't the case. But hasn't he just, in effect, handed this to the next administration, this very complex assignment?

DINA CAPPIELLO: I think he's handed the decision to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act to the next administration. I think he's also given to Congress -- he's asked Congress to do something in terms of new legislation.

I think the Bush administration would say, "What we'd like to see is more investment in technologies and proposals that not only take in account U.S. emissions, but global emissions."

And so they said we'd rather -- well, this is just not the right way to do it. The president's press secretary said today there's a right way and there's a wrong way. The wrong way is the Clean Air Act, what's on the books, an antiquated law since 1970. And the right way is new technologies and trying to do this in a more voluntary way.

White House pushing back on EPA

RAY SUAREZ: The stories that are coming out about this conflict say the vice president's office has had a lot to say about the workings of the EPA when it regards global climate change.

DINA CAPPIELLO: That's true. I mean, I think the White House had a lot to say, period, on what to do about climate change, but Cheney's office has been linked to changing testimony of certain EPA officials and also CDC officials, again, about that crucial link between the pollutants that cause global warming and public health and welfare, which is that key link that has to be made before you're compelled under the law to do something about it.

RAY SUAREZ: In the very large document that they released today, did the EPA go as far as to say that this is now acknowledged science, and put the Bush administration on the record as acknowledging that this is happening and a response is warranted?

DINA CAPPIELLO: I think that they're acknowledging the problem; I think that's pretty clear. They're saying that this is happening.

I think that what they're saying is, "We don't know really what to do about it, and definitely the Clean Air Act is not how to go about solving this problem."

RAY SUAREZ: Dina Cappiello, thanks for joining us.