US EPA announces it has power to regulate emissions, giving Obama a bigger hammer in Copenhagen

Publish date: December 7, 2009

COPENHAGEN – The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday issued a final ruling that greenhouse gases pose a danger to human health and the environment, paving the way for regulation of carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles, power plants, factories, refineries and other major sources, and offering a route to side-step a sluggish congress.

The announcement called an ‘endangerment finding’  was clearly timed to coincide with the opening of the United Nations conference on climate change in Copenhagen, strengthening US President Obama’s hand as 192 nations struggle to reach a global accord to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

The move was greeted with clear opprobrium by world leaders and non-governmental organisations alike in Copenhagen.

Bellona President Frederic Hauge said “this is exactly what we have said (US President Barack) Obama to prepare for, and this comes in line with the Surpreme Court decision of 2007.” 

“What we are seeing now is the ability (for the US) to act,” said Hauge. Indeed, Hauge pointed out that the new announcment from the EPA is one in a string of political moves that puts the ball in Obama’s hands to act nearly unilaterally, if necessary, on climate change if Congress fails to deliver the goods.

“In Europe in general, it is underestimated what kind of efforts Obama has undertaken – this is something that negotiators here should be aware of,” continued Hauge. “There are mandatory ways to set targets by 2013 and 2020. This could draw legal action from industry, but they will not win and will only delay the inevitable.”

The EPA’s move, said Hauge, will allow the United States to pressure other countries, namely China, which has not announced any concrete plans on how they intend to peak out their emissions by 2020.

“The EPA move is a domestic move, not an international one, and it will put pressure on other countries to act domestically,” Hauge said.

Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said the Obama administration was “showing what it can do, even while legislation is pending.”

“It also sends a powerful signal to Congress. It shows a degree of resolve on the part of the president,” he told the Associated Press.

Hemming Andreas Calgen, the environment minister for Sweden –  which currently holds the EU presidency – said the outcome of the summit depended mostly “on what will be delivered by the United States and China”.

The move will mean that Obama, who is now scheduled to appear before delegates at the Conference of Parties 15 (COP15) in Copenhagen on December 18th, will bring with him the new EPA mandate as a cudgel to shove US Congress into line by sending it the message that if it does not act to pass cuts in the climate legislation, the regulatory hammer will.

Though climate legislation passed the Senate Environmental and Public Works committee in early November, many other Senate committees had to weigh in on the legalisation, and it was announced that no debate on the bill was expected before Spring.

This was disappointing to environmentalists and many negotiators gathered here in Copenhagen alike, as Obama cannot commit to more than a 17 percent cut below 2005 emissions levels until the legislation becomes law. This has put Obama in the hot seat to offer delegates more than the 17 percent cuts over 2005 levels he has committed to by whatever means necessary.

The EPA, having reached the final ruling that carbon dioxide and five other principle greenhouse gasses are pollutants, could, if the Senate balks, initiate the cuts proposed in the pending legislation by itself.

In the near terms the EPA is expected to move forward with proposed vehicle standards, which would impose a national fuel-efficiency standard of 35.5 miles per gallon on cars, light-duty trucks, and medium-duty passenger vehicles covering model year 2012 through 2016.

The Obama administration has expressed a preference that larger industrial matters be handled by Congress, but the EPA announcement will put the heat on them to act.

More offerings for Copenhagen from US

“I would be astonished if the United States would not be offering more concessions when Obama arrives,” said Sweden’s Calgren in a telephone interview. “If the Senate drags its feet, the EPA can crack the regulatory whip.”

The EPA’s administrator, Lisa Jackson, was clear in a news conference at EPA headquarters that the endangerment ruling would give the Obama an ace up its sleeve in Copenhagen.

The EPA “is now authorized and obligated to make reasonable efforts to reduce greenhouse pollutants,” she told reporters.

“These are reasonable, common-sense steps,” she said. “It means that we arrive at the climate talks in Copenhagen with a clear demonstration of our commitment to facing this global challenge.”

Democrat Senators listening up

So far, Senators who helped shape the Senate bill are taking the EPA ruling seriously, and realise it international ramifications as the world delegates try to negotiate the building blocks of an international climate treaty.

Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrrat, and lead author of the climate bill before the Senate, said of the finding: “This is a clear message to Copenhagen of the Obama administration’s commitments to address global climate change. … The message to Congress is crystal clear: Get moving,” according to the Associated Press.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat and co-author of the legislation, said, “The Senate has a duty to act.”

Historic post-Bush breakthrough

In 2007, the Supreme Court required the agency to weigh whether carbon dioxide and five other climate-altering gases threatened human health and welfare and, if so, to take steps to regulate them.

But the administration of the Bush-era EPA was encouraged to ignore the Supreme Court ruling and let to the next administration.
Jackson said Monday that the finding was driven by the weight of scientific evidence that the planet was warming and that human activity was largely responsible.

“There have and continue to be debates about how and how quickly climate change will happen if we fail to act,” Jackson said at the EPA news conference. “But the overwhelming amounts of scientific study show that the threat is real.”

Several Republicans in Congress had asked the EPA to delay the so-called endangerment finding because of questions about the underlying science. Ms. Jackson rejected their plea.

“We know that sceptics have and will continue to try to sow doubts about the science,” she said. “It’s no wonder that many people are confused. But raising doubts — even in the face of overwhelming evidence — is a tactic that has been used by defenders of the status quo for years.”

She said that the agency had reviewed the arguments of some of those sceptics during months of public comment but that none of them had raised significant new issues.

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