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EPA Finding Opens Door to New Emissions Regulations

April 17, 2009 at 6:00 PM EDT
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An EPA report has labeled greenhouse gases as pollutants that threaten public health, paving the way for possible new emissions regulations. Analysts examine what the move means.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Our lead story: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency formally declared today that greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide are a significant threat to public health. The finding opens the door to new government action on climate change.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman has our report.

KWAME HOLMAN: The EPA announcement was based on a review of possible health dangers from global warming. It focused on carbon dioxide and five other heat-trapping gases released by cars and trucks, power plants, and industrial sources.

The agency found, “In both magnitude and probability, climate change is an enormous problem. The greenhouse gases that are responsible for it endanger public health and welfare within the meaning of the Clean Air Act.”

The Supreme Court ruled nearly two years ago that law gave the EPA the authority it needed to act on global warming. The Bush administration strongly opposed invoking the statute for that purpose.

President Obama and his new EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, have said they prefer congressional action. They’ve called for a new system to let industry cap and trade emissions.

But automakers and power generators have warned controls on emissions would mean severe economic damage. Those sources account for half of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.

In a statement today, the National Association of Manufacturers said new regulations “will add costly delays to manufacturers seeking to expand operations or upgrade their manufacturing processes in a manner that conserves energy.”

The EPA now must hold a 60-day public comment period before issuing a final ruling. Ultimately, the agency could issue its own regulations if Congress does not act.

Impact of the decision

David Bookbinder
The Sierra Club
What makes this decision important is that, for the first time, the United States government is formally recognizing the impact that greenhouse gases have on our environment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeffrey Brown has more about the potential implications of the government's decision.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for that, we get two views. David Bookbinder is chief climate counsel for the Sierra Club, the environmental advocacy group. Keith McCoy is vice president of energy and resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, an industry trade group.

David Bookbinder, what makes this decision so important?

DAVID BOOKBINDER, The Sierra Club: What makes this decision important is that, for the first time, the United States government is formally recognizing the impact that greenhouse gases have on our environment.

Climate change is real. And as the Supreme Court has said, if climate change is real and greenhouse gases adversely affect public health and the environment, then it's up to the Environmental Protection Agency to begin setting limits on them.

JEFFREY BROWN: So can we agree on the importance of the ruling here, the decision?

KEITH MCCOY, National Association of Manufacturers: Well, it's a big rule, no question about that. And the significance for manufacturing, doing something so complicated through the Clean Air Act is immense.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let's explore that. I mean, the dispute now is over what kind of regulation and who should regulate, Congress or the EPA?

KEITH MCCOY: I think that's -- well, I would add, also, whether it's an international agreement. This is global warming. These are emissions that take place throughout the world. And to cap emissions or to control emissions just in the United States puts American manufacturing at a competitive disadvantage.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what are the stakes? I mean, what specific areas of tension do you think now as this -- as it moves forward? What do you see happening?

KEITH MCCOY: Well, I think this is going to force Congress to act and do something. We would argue that this needs to be a robust and transparent debate, and we certainly hope that that's what takes place.

But if that doesn't take place, there's real concern about using the Clean Air Act as a blunt instrument to regulate carbon, which could potentially impact the entire permitting process for manufacturers.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Supreme Court case from two years ago really was focused on auto emissions.

DAVID BOOKBINDER: That's correct.

JEFFREY BROWN: But this goes potentially much further.

DAVID BOOKBINDER: Yes, it does.

Future of regulation

Keith McCoy
National Association of Manufacturers
You would...potentially [have] all 50 states...having their own carbon emission standard. And our position is that, if Congress is going to do this, we should have one consistent standard to create some certainty.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what do you see happening next in terms of regulation?

DAVID BOOKBINDER: What's going to happen next is, as EPA said, they are going to promulgate regulations dealing with emissions of greenhouse gases from cars to start, which is about 25 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

After this endangerment finding is made, the Environmental Protection Agency has a mandatory duty; it must go out and set limits on those same emissions from other significant sources.

And what that will eventually mean is, unless Congress acts and decides to write tailor-made climate legislation, which we all want to see happen, that EPA will continue down the regulatory path and set limits for power plants, factories, et cetera, which is not the worst thing in the world.

Eighty percent of U.S. greenhouse gases come out of smokestacks and tailpipes. And EPA has been regulating other pollutants out of smokestacks and tailpipes successfully for four decades. So using the Clean Air Act is a perfectly useful exercise to control greenhouse gas emissions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, as Kwame Holman said in that report, the Obama administration and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson have said that they would prefer to go the legislative route. Is that the better -- do you agree that that is the better approach, rather than the EPA?

KEITH MCCOY: If we had the choice between EPA and congressional action, absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: And why?

KEITH MCCOY: Well, with EPA, again, as I mentioned, the Clean Air Act is a blunt instrument. Also, going through EPA, it doesn't preclude a state-by-state approach.

So, in essence, you could have this endangerment finding, EPA regulating carbon, plus you would also have all 50 states, potentially all 50 states regulate having their own carbon emission standard, plus, also with regional greenhouse gas standards, which is already taking place.

And our position is that, if Congress is going to do this, we should have one consistent standard to create some certainty.

JEFFREY BROWN: So there's some certainty for businesses out there?

KEITH MCCOY: Exactly.

Action in Congress

David Bookbinder
The Sierra Club
All parties agree that Congress is in a position to write tailor-made, precision legislation on greenhouse gases.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think about the Congress versus -- legislative versus the regulatory? Would it be better to do this through Congress now?

DAVID BOOKBINDER: Yes, we agree that it would be better to do it through Congress. All parties agree that Congress is in a position to write tailor-made, precision legislation on greenhouse gases.

I think the large disagreement we have right now is that we feel that the Clean Air Act is a perfectly adequate and reasonable means of doing things until Congress acts, or Congress may never act. We want it to.

But in the absence of congressional leadership and congressional action, EPA has said they will go down the regulatory path. And they have the authority; they're showing the willingness; and they have the technical expertise to do this.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you think they should, pending Congress act?

DAVID BOOKBINDER: That's what the law says. The law is very clear. The Supreme Court made that clear. The Clean Air Act is explicit about this.

EPA has a mandatory duty. It must begin setting limits on greenhouse gases from cars, power plants, and other significant sources of carbon dioxide.

JEFFREY BROWN: What -- I'm sorry, you wanted to jump in?

KEITH MCCOY: The only thing I would add is, yes, they have the authority given to them by the Supreme Court, but I would argue, again, that the Clean Air Act was not set up to control or regulate carbon. It's more of a localized pollutant regulation or statute.

So we're talking about -- and it's almost apples and oranges when you start to talk about carbon and using the Clean Air Act and using permitting. And the concern that we have -- and it's a real concern -- is when you open up some of these permits and companies have to go through this regulatory process, what does this mean? What type of uncertainty? What type of delays? What are the costs associated with this?

JEFFREY BROWN: And as I think you pointed out earlier, a lot of this action continues in the states, right?

KEITH MCCOY: That's correct.

JEFFREY BROWN: So that will continue, in California, for example, with the auto emissions?

DAVID BOOKBINDER: California has the authority under the Clean Air Act to set its own automobile emission standards, and they've done so, and we're expecting EPA to approve those standards some time in the next couple of months.

I just want to revisit one issue, which is the kind of continued theme that we hear from some people that the Clean Air Act was not set up or not intended to address climate.

Congress used the word "climate" right in the act. And the Supreme Court two years ago said Congress intended greenhouse gases to be covered by the Clean Air Act. So we should be beyond that argument.

Now, we can argue that Congress can do a better job, as I've said, tailor-made legislation specifically for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. But the idea that they're not part of the Clean Air Act or the Clean Air Act can't be used to address them is simply not true.

Timeframe for change

Keith McCoy
National Association of Manufacturers
There will be a series of hearings next week. I think there will be a robust debate within that subcommittee. And then, within the overall committee, there will be a robust debate. And then I think there will be floor action, as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, we're not going to resolve that one, but to the extent that now it is going, there is a process and there is action in Congress right now, do you expect a big fight here now over -- what do you see happening in the next six months? Or what is the timeframe?

KEITH MCCOY: Well, I think within the House -- there's legislation in the House. Congressman Waxman, who's the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, he and Congressman Markey have legislation.

There will be a series of hearings next week. I think there will be a robust debate within that subcommittee. And then, within the overall committee, there will be a robust debate. And then I think there will be floor action, as well.

I think the sticking point is going to be in the Senate. I think -- and that's when you start to get into some of these regional issues in how energy is used, how it's consumed, and the potential cost for consumers and manufacturers. I think that's really where the rubber is going to hit the road for Congress, is these regional issues and the cost.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me ask you briefly on the international. There is this meeting at the end of the year in Copenhagen. That's the next global talks, right?

DAVID BOOKBINDER: That's correct.

JEFFREY BROWN: How does today's action impact that?

DAVID BOOKBINDER: Enormously. It is critically important that President Obama go to Copenhagen with credibility. And because we don't think that there will necessarily be legislative action out of Congress before then, the president has to do something.

And these are actions entirely within his control. Making the endangerment finding, the first set of regulations for automobiles, perhaps by December, proposing regulations on other sources shows that this administration and the president are taking climate change seriously and they're doing whatever they can.

So this is going to go a long way towards establishing his credibility and U.S. leadership at Copenhagen.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We'll leave it there. David Bookbinder and Keith McCoy, thank you both very much.

DAVID BOOKBINDER: Thank you.

KEITH MCCOY: Thank you.