The U.S. government officially declared greenhouse gases a danger to public health and welfare today, showing the world and Congress that even if national climate legislation is delayed, the United States can still take action to limit global warming.
Sen. John Kerry, a key negotiator at international climate talks in Copenhagen, called the EPA's finalizing of its endangerment finding "a clear message to Copenhagen of the Obama Administration's commitment to address global climate change."
As for lawmakers in Washington, Kerry said,
"The message to Congress is crystal clear: Get moving. Imposed regulations by definition will not include the job protections and investment incentives we are proposing in the Senate today. ... Industry needs the certainty that comes with Congressional action on this vital issue."
The endangerment finding doesn't create regulations by itself, but it lays a foundation for regulatory action under the Clean Air Act.
The finding authorizes and, in light of a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, now obligates the EPA to take steps to reduce greenhouse gas pollutants.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson earlier described how the EPA intended to write those future regulations. They would be "tailored" so only large industrial polluters, those emitting more than 25,000 tons of greenhouse gases a year, would be required to obtain permits demonstrating they were using the best practices and control technology. The EPA estimates the rules would cover about 14,000 facilities that account for nearly 70 percent of the national emissions from stationary sources such as power plants and refineries.
It isn't clear how soon that might happen, though.
When asked today if the EPA would set regulations before the Senate debates climate legislation — which Senate leaders say isn't likely before spring — Jackson replied that she doesn't have a timeline for taking action.
She stressed, however, that the administration still firmly believes that climate legislation is necessary. A federal law can be comprehensive, economy wide, and provide certainty for investors, she said, but it shouldn't be an either/or proposition — both Congress and the Clean Air Act have important roles to play.
That emphasis, echoed today by EarthJustice and Friends of the Earth, stems from a key difference between the House-passed American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) bill and the Senate's climate bill. ACES would expressly prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions from power plants; the Senate version contains no such restriction — yet. A few senators have attempted to add similar language to other bills this year.
Extensive Review Already Raised the 'ClimateGate' Questions
The endangerment finding was unusual in arriving unaccompanied by regulations. Jackson said the administration took that route because it wanted the public to understand the step and be involved in the process.
Nearly 400,000 comments came in, all of them reviewed and in the public record. That extensive review process, from before the endangerment finding was proposed in April until now, raised the same questions that are being brought up in the hacked e-mails scandal, Jackson said when asked why the EPA didn't delay issuing the endangerment finding.
"I didn't delay it because there is nothing in the hacked emails that undermines the science upon which this decision is based," Jackson said. "This does not raise new questions that have not already been addressed.
"There have and continue to be debates about how and how quickly climate change will happen if we fail to act. But the overwhelming amounts of scientific study show that the threat is real — as does the evidence before our very eyes.
"It's time that we let the science speak for itself," she said. "In making this finding, we relied on decades of sound, peer-reviewed, extensively evaluated scientific data. That data came from around the world and from our own U.S. scientists."
Specifically, the finding describes a threat to human health and welfare for this and future generations from six key greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6).
It describes health risks, including the impact of global warming on air quality, how increasing temperatures and extreme weather put lives at risk, and the threat of diseases spreading into the country as the climate becomes more hospitable to their carriers, as well as other risks to public welfare, such as from rising sea level, droughts and storms.
One set of EPA regulations involving greenhouse gases will kick in soon. Starting in January, large emitters such as power plans will be begin reporting their greenhouse gas emissions to the EPA under rules that were finalized in September. In 2011, the EPA plans to be able to meaningfully track greenhouse gas emissions.
The endangerment finding also provides a legal foundation for the clean cars program, an agreement announced by Obama and leaders in the auto industry earlier this year to limit greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles.
Endangerment Finding Answers a 3-Year-Old Supreme Court Ruling
The finalizing of the endangerment finding finally puts the U.S. government in line with a nearly 3-year-old Supreme Court ruling that had been ignored by the previous administration.
In Massachusetts v. EPA, the high court found in early 2007 that EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases and under the Clean Air Act and ordered the EPA to make a determination based on science: If the agency found greenhouse gases posed a danger to public health and welfare, the EPA would have to begin setting standards to regulate greenhouse gases emissions from motor vehicles.
The Bush administration's EPA did draft an endangerment finding later that year stating that "air pollution of elevated levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public welfare." However, the Bush-Cheney White House never opened the draft.
"Now that the U.S. government has officially ended its era of climate denial, the real endangerment to our planet comes from those who continue to deny the science and delay taking any action," said Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a co-sponsor of the ACES bill.
Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope praised the Obama administration for following through on its campaign pledge to act to slow climate change.
"By shifting to clean energy and cracking down on the corporations that pollute the water we drink and the air we breathe, we can restore our economy to prosperity and reduce our dependence on oil and coal, all while tackling global warming," Pope said.
"This is one more key commitment President Obama can bring to the world to show that the U.S. will do its part to fight global warming."