3 January 2011: US regulation of greenhouse gas emissions

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is now regulating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from power stations, oil refineries, cement productions facilities and other major sources of pollution. These are responsible for around 40% of total US emissions. This EPA approach has been pursued because the Obama Administration has failed to get its cap-and-trade bill though Congress. The Republicans, who now have a majority in the House of Representatives, are threatening to deprive the EPA of the money needed to implement the regulations. Texas is also doing all it can to oppose the policy. Therefore, this is the key climate battle for the US in 2011. Most Americans support moves to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, so it is a winnable battle.

The EPA summarises the policy as follows:

Beginning in January 2011, industries that are large emitters of GHGs, and are planning to build new facilities or make major modifications to existing ones, must obtain air permits and implement energy efficiency measures or, where available, cost-effective technology to reduce their GHGs emissions. This includes the nation’s largest GHG emitters, such as power plants, refineries and cement production facilities. Emissions from small sources, such as farms and restaurants are not covered by these GHG permitting requirements.

(See EPA: New Source Review.)

The US Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the EPA had the duty to regulate GHGs. The EPA had previously argued that it did not, but 12 states, led by Massachusetts, and some NGOs argued that it did, and the Supreme Court agreed that greenhouse gases fit the definition of pollutants under the Clean Air Act and could endanger public health and welfare. The governor of Texas took the EPA to court last month, arguing that its proposed regulations were unconstitutional, but the court backed the EPA.

So, the EPA has the constitutional powers. However, to implement the programme it also needs money. Republicans have said that they will now try to block the regulations by eliminating funding in the spending bill that comes before Congress early this year. This raises the political stakes, because the spending bill has to be approved to prevent a government shut-down. Incoming House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, Fred Upton, recently wrote an article with Tim Phillips, head of the misnamed Americans for Prosperity, which argues against most government activity. The article states that:

On Jan. 2, the Environmental Protection Agency will officially begin regulating the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. This move represents an unconstitutional power grab that will kill millions of jobs—unless Congress steps in.

(See Americans for prosperity: Congressman Fred Upton and AFP’s Tim Phillips on WSJ: How Congress Can Stop the EPA’s Power Grab.)

Unconstitutional?  Not according to the US Supreme Court. Power grab? Well, the EPA spent years arguing that it had no obligation to regulate GHGs – a strange way to grab power. Kill millions of jobs? That’s simply lazy rhetoric. Yes, jobs will be reduced in the fossil fuel industries (which, probably not coincidentally, give lots of donations to US politicians and, indeed, to Americans for Prosperity), but employment will increase in clean energy sectors. By contrast, failure to reduce emissions will kill millions of people.

Despite the power and money of the fossil fuel industry and the efforts of those who deny any human role in climate change and oppose any change can be overcome, most Americans wants to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, to create jobs in other energy industries and to cut pollution. The Natural Resources Defense Council blog notes that in a recent poll:

Three out of four Americans agree with the following statement: “Smarter energy choices are the key to creating new jobs and a future that is healthy and safe because fossil fuels create toxic wastes that are a threat to our health and safety” “

(See NRDC: New national poll: Americans across party lines want clean energy and believe it is the key to creating new jobs, and support strong environmental protection even if it costs more.)

However, in the US (as elsewhere) those who support things are generally less active and vocal than those who oppose them. The top priority for all Americans concerned about climate change should be to lobby Congress, to ensure that the EPA has the money to move ahead with regulation.

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