Ucilia Wang: December 7, 2009

EPA Tightens Grip on Carbon Emissions

The federal agency issues a finding that greenhouse gases are bad for public health, a move that sets the foundation for regulating emissions from a variety of sources.

It's official. Greenhouse gas emissions do harm people and the environment.

The proclamation came from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Monday, which also is the first day of the United Nations' two-week negotiation in Copenhagen for a treaty to reduce man-made emissions and curtail climate change.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson held a press conference to announce what's called the endangerment finding, which will enable the agency to set rules for regulating emissions of six greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride.

The EPA issued a tentative finding back in April this year and sought public comments on the evidence it had gathered to support such findings.

"In my mind, in order to show the American people that the EPA is on the job, it's important for our credibility, that we would put this out for public comments and act on it in an expeditious manner. We would keep the ball moving," Jackson said.

The Obama administration vowed from the start to push hard for regulating greenhouse gas emissions, and the EPA already has proposed rules this year to curb emissions from cars and large industrial operations such as power plants.

These moves also send a signal to Congress that the agency would go forward with policies to reduce emissions even if lawmakers aren't able to agree on a climate change legislation to do so.

Jackson rebuffed suggestions that she's using the endangerment finding to force lawmakers to act sooner on a climate change bill. The House passed its version in June this year, while the Senate is molding its own version of the bill. The contentious healthcare debate has taken up much of the energy and time of the lawmakers and the White House, however.

The EPA began defining its role in regulating greenhouse gas emissions after a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision that says the EPA could regulate those emissions under the Clean Air Act. It wasn't the decision that the Bush administration wanted to hear, and it argued that the EPA didn't have the authority to do so.

The endangerment finding announced Monday will pave the way for the EPA to work on a plan unveiled by President Obama in May to raise the national fuel economy standards and set emission restrictions for cars and trucks. The administration presented the plan after negotiating with major automakers, unions and environmental groups.

The plan calls for the EPA to craft tailpipe emission standards, which would cover all new passenger cars and trucks for model years 2012 to 2016. 

The EPA is instituting a program to collect greenhouse gas emission data that would cover about 85 percent to 90 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted by major polluters in the country. The program would require automakers to report emissions generated by the vehicles they produce as well as by aircraft and other types of engines (see EPA Proposes Rule to Collect More Greenhouse-Gas Emission).

Most of the major emitters will begin to collect the required data in 2010 and submit its first annual report to the EPA in 2011, the EPA said in September.

In another announcement made in September, the EPA proposed a rule to regulate emissions from large, stationary sources such as power plants, refineries and factories that emit at least 25,000 tons of greenhouse gases per year.

The proposal would require these industrial operators to use the "best available control technologies and energy efficiency measures" to cut emissions when they build new or significantly alter existing facilities, the EPA said. The proposal also aims to assure small and medium businesses that they won't be subject to emissions regulations at this time.

Photo via Flickr/Creative Commons.

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