Many legal experts say U.S. EPA's final endangerment finding could ultimately trigger national air-quality standards for greenhouse gases, but Administrator Lisa Jackson is signaling that her agency would oppose such limits.
EPA yesterday unveiled its determination that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare and that emissions from new cars contribute to the mix of those gases in the atmosphere.
The finding does not entail any immediate regulations, but it opens the door for an array of agency rules to curtail the heat-trapping emissions. And while EPA's finding deals specifically with cars and light trucks, legal observers say the agency could ultimately likely be required to expand the "endangerment" determination to other parts of the Clean Air Act, including a section that requires the agency to set national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for harmful pollutants.
Some groups are urging EPA to get moving on setting those standards for greenhouse gases. The Center for Biological Diversity and 350.org petitioned the agency last week 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 (Greenwire, Dec. 2).
"The endangerment finding is the beginning of the process," said Bill Snape, senior counsel of the Center for Biological Diversity. "We believe that the NAAQS process is the No. 1 process of actually getting us to 350, actually getting us to a nationwide pollution cap that is science-based."
But Jackson made clear yesterday that the Obama administration is hoping to avoid such regulations, which many industry and environmental groups argue would be difficult to implement and may not achieve the intended reductions.
"Nothing in today's action requires any regulatory action," Jackson said in response to a question about whether the endangerment finding would require EPA to set nationwide limits for greenhouse gases.
"I have never believed and this agency has never believed that setting a national ambient air quality standard for greenhouse gases was advisable," Jackson added. Still, she said the agency would review the groups' petition. "I don't know that there's anything in there that would change my view, but we'll certainly do that," she said.
Snape said Jackson's comments "speak for themselves in that she doesn't deny that the endangerment find does trigger a number of future regulatory issues, including the NAAQS issues."
Still, Congress may intervene before EPA is forced to grapple with the NAAQS issue.
Energy and climate bills passed by the House and pending in the Senate would both prohibit EPA from regulating greenhouse gases as harmful "criteria" air pollutants based on the emissions' effects on climate change.
David Bookbinder, chief climate counsel at the Sierra Club, said that Congress would take swift action to prohibit EPA from setting allowable limits for greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act before it was acted on in court. In the absence of a comprehensive energy and climate bill, Bookbinder said Congress could pass narrow legislation aimed at blocking EPA's authority.
"Despite global warming, hell will freeze over before there's a NAAQS for CO2," Bookbinder said.
But Snape insisted that EPA limits are the most effective way to get the reductions mandated by science. "To me, the bottom line is, Congress doesn't appear to be moving fast on any of this," he said. "And at some point, as the global warming situation continues to get worse, we've got to look at the existing tools we already have, and that's the Clean Air Act."