Two environmental groups petitioned U.S. EPA today to set national limits for greenhouse gases using the Clean Air Act.
The Center for Biological Diversity and 350.org petitioned EPA to designate greenhouse gases as "criteria" air pollutants, which would require EPA to establish allowable nationwide concentrations for the gases. The groups are asking the agency to cap atmospheric concentrations of CO2 at 350 parts per million (ppm) -- a level the groups and some scientists say is necessary to avoid the worst effects of global warming.
"It's time to use our strongest existing tool for reducing greenhouse gas pollution -- the Clean Air Act," said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute. "For four decades, this law has protected the air we breathe -- and it's done that through a proven, successful system of pollution control that saves lives and creates economic benefits vastly exceeding its costs."
Many experts, however, insist that it does not make sense for the agency to regulate greenhouse gases as criteria air pollutants.
Energy and climate bills passed by the House and pending in the Senate would both prohibit EPA from regulating greenhouse gases as criteria air pollutants based on the emissions' effects on climate change. And in October, EPA's air chief, Gina McCarthy, said the agency had no intention of regulating greenhouse gases as criteria pollutants.
David Bookbinder, chief climate counsel at the Sierra Club, said the petitioners' view is in the minority and that the document is headed to "well-deserved bureaucratic oblivion" at EPA.
"It's truly a pointless exercise," Bookbinder said. "And while 350 may be where the planet should end up, the [National Ambient Air Quality Standards] is not the mechanism for getting there."
EPA can take a big bite out of global warming pollution using other policies, said David Doniger, policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate Center. His group is urging EPA to focus on other policies like vehicle emission standards, New Source Review rules and performance standards for stationary sources to tackle greenhouse gas emissions.
Jeff Holmstead, an industry attorney and EPA air chief under President George W. Bush, said the petition is more of a political statement than a serious legal effort. "I don't know anyone at EPA who believes it would make sense to set a national ambient air quality standard for CO2," he said.
The big problem, Holmstead said, is that CO2 concentrations are basically the same throughout the world, so either the whole world is in attainment or the whole world is out of attainment. But the Clean Air Act is premised on the fact that air quality is very different in different parts of the country -- and that areas with poor air quality can take steps to improve it.
If EPA were to set a national ambient air quality standard for CO2, Holmstead said, "every state in the U.S. would then have legal obligations that they could never meet, even if they prohibited the use of cars and trucks and shut down all their industrial facilities."
But the Center for Biological Diversity and 350.org argue that pending legislation would not achieve the 350 ppm level needed to avoid dangerous results.
Last week, during the run-up to U.N. climate negotiations in Copenhagen, President Obama proposed a provisional greenhouse gas emissions target for 2020 "in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels." But with current atmospheric CO2 concentrations at about 385 ppm, the groups said, those cuts will not go far enough to achieve the goal of 350 ppm.
"Leading scientists at NASA and around the world say we need to get to 350 ppm," said 350.org founder Bill McKibben. "This petition simply asks EPA to do its job as science, the law and common sense require."
Although EPA has committed to taking aggressive steps to address greenhouse gases, "This request probably goes too far for them at this time," said Roger Martella, former EPA general counsel during the George W. Bush administration. However, he said, the petition reinforces the need for EPA to be very deliberate when crafting its final endangerment determination.
"A determination that current concentrations of greenhouse gases, between 385 and 390 ppm, endanger public health and/or welfare could have far reaching impacts both in the United States and abroad," Martella said. Many experts expect EPA to issue its final endangerment decision before Obama's scheduled speech at the U.N. climate negotiations in Copenhagen next Wednesday.
Click here to read the petition.