I am a bit behind in writing a post about EPA's release of its endangerment finding. Earth Day seems like the perfect day to catch up and take advantage of the last few days to look at the reaction and likely consequences of EPA's significant new action.
Background: In Massachusetts v. EPA decided in April of 2007, the Supreme Court held that greenhouse gases (GHGs) are pollutants that may be regulated under the Clean Air Act. But the Court did not go far enough to say EPA must regulate GHGs. At issue was Section 202 of the Clean Air Act which covers regulation of greenhouse gases from motor vehicles.
Under Section 202: The Administrator shall by regulation prescribe standards applicable to the emission of any air pollutant(s) from motor vehicles, “which in his judgment cause, or contribute to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.”
The Court said EPA must conclude GHGs from motor vehicles endanger public health (i.e. "endangerment finding") before any regulation of emissions (tail pipe or fuel standards) from motor vehicles can occur. The Court remanded the Section 202 determination to EPA to make a legally defensible finding as to whether motor vehicle GHG emissions endanger public health.
Key Legal Issues Discussed in EPA's Proposed Action: On April 17th, Administrator Jackson issued a proposed finding that vehicle emissions of GHGs do endanger public health. There is now a 60 day public comment period on the proposed action.
A key legal issue analyzed in the proposed action is whether Section 202 requires "actual harm" from a pollutant before it can be regulated. EPA's proposed rule discusses the legislative history behind the language in Section 202 and concludes no finding of actual harm is necessary:
As the Committee further explained, the phrase “may reasonably be anticipated” points the Administrator in the direction of assessing current and future risks rather than waiting for proof of actual harm.
Also, EPA's proposed action rejects the notion a demonstration is needed that controlling GHG emissions from U.S. autos would actually make a difference in addressing climate change. The EPA cited to language in the Supreme Court's Massachusetts v. EPA :
Moreover, as the Supreme Court recognized, “[a]gencies, like legislatures, do not generally resolve massive problems in one fell regulatory swoop.”
Science and Findings in EPA's Proposed Action: There is no new science behind the endangerment finding. Administrator Jackson relies on reports and conclusions from the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, the National Research Council, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. She found these reports to provide more than sufficient support that GHG pose a "risk" to public health that should be addressed.
Here is how EPA has described its action on its web page and in supporting documentation:
The Administrator signed a proposal with two distinct findings regarding greenhouse gases under section 202(a) of the Clean Air Act:
1) The Administrator is proposing to find that the current and projected concentrations of the mix of six key greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6)—in the atmosphere threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations. This is referred to as the endangerment finding.
2) The Administrator is further proposing to find that the combined emissions of CO2, CH4, N2O, and HFCs from new motor vehicles and motor vehicle engines contribute to the atmospheric concentrations of these key greenhouse gases and hence to the threat of climate change. This is referred to as the cause or contribute finding.
This proposed action, as well as any final action in the future, would not itself impose any requirements on industry or other entities. An endangerment finding under one provision of the Clean Air Act would not by itself automatically trigger regulation under the entire Act
This last statement is very interesting.
Does "Endangerment" = "Regulation": Obviously the positive endangerment finding itself has major consequences. There is no doubt it sets EPA on a path to regulate GHGs under the Clean Air Act unless Congress passes a cap and trade bill as substitute regulation. While the path is set, the timing is in question. Does this proposed action by itself mean all other sources that emit GHGs (beyond just motor vehicles) are subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act?
The status of GHGs under the Clean Air Act is uncertain as it stands. EPA is currently taking comment on a separate action regarding regulation of GHGs under the Clean Air Act- Reconsideration of Former Administrator Johnson's memo declaring GHG unregulated without further action.
Deseret Power was an appeal of a coal permit in which Sierra Club argued the permit was invalid because it didn't include controls for GHGs. The Environmental Board of Review said it was an open question as to whether GHG are considered "regulated pollutants" under the Clean Air Act. Sierra Club pointed to existing requirements to monitor CO2 emissions as evidence of regulation. The EAB said EPA had discretion to decide whether monitoring was enough to amount to regulation.
In response to the EAB, Johnson, in one of his last acts before leaving office, tried to fill the void by issuing an interpretive memo determining CO2 was not a regulated pollutant due to the monitoring provisions. Administrator Jackson is currently reviewing the Johnson memo following the Sierra Club petition.
THIS IS A HUGE ISSUE...If GHGs are regulated pollutants, then no additional legislation, rulemaking or action is necessary. EPA could not issue permits to sources of GHGs without considering controls for those emissions.
Footnote 29 of the Endangerment Finding: So does EPA's proposed endangerment finding amount to "regulation" of GHGs under the Clean Air Act? Buried in footnote 29 on page 106 of the Proposed Rule is to me one of the most significant consequences flowing from a positive endangerment finding- does the finding amount to regulation. Here is what footnote 29 says:
At this time, a final positive endangerment finding would not make the air pollutant found to cause or contribute to air pollution that endangers a regulated pollutant under the CAA’s Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) program. See memorandum entitled “EPA’s Interpretation of Regulations that Determine Pollutants Covered By Federal Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) Permit Program” (Dec. 18, 2008). EPA is reconsidering this memorandum and
will be seeking public comment on the issues raised in it. That proceeding, not this rulemaking, would be the appropriate venue for submitting comments on the issue of whether a final, positive endangerment finding under section 202(a) of the Act should trigger the PSD program, and the implications of the definition of air pollutant in that endangerment finding on the PSD program.
EPA's footnote is confusing. The issue in the reconsideration on the Johnson memo really should be limited to whether monitoring is sufficient to constitute "regulation" under the Act. An endangerment finding would be a new action by EPA that will take place after Deseret Power was issued, after the Johnson Memo was written and after EPA granted the reconsideration of the Sierra Club petition.
Perhaps the final action on the review of the Johnson memo will make this debate moot. It certainly will if that action is to say GHG's are a regulated pollutant based upon monitoring requirements alone. However, anything other than that outcome will allow the endangerment finding to be new grounds to argue GHGs are regulated under the Act. In a prior post I discussed what a horrible outcome that would be as a regulatory approach.
Final Comment: Once again, to those questioning the merits of a Cap and Trade market mechanism for controlling GHGs- consider the alternative. Like it or not EPA is on a path to regulate GHGs. Due to the Supreme Court's holding in Massachusetts v EPA, there is no getting off that path or turning around.
(see the extended entry for discussion of the reaction to EPA's action)
Deniers: Here was reaction from the Congressional denier of climate change, Sen. James Inhofe:
This move by EPA will unleash a torrent of regulations that will destroy jobs, harm consumers, and extend the agency’s reach into every corner of American life. While such regulations will create another massive burden on the economy, there will be no positive effect on global climate change as a result.
The Senator goes on to also blast the alternative to regulation of GHGs under the Clean Air Act- Cap and Trade. He seriously argues that Congress should pass a bill blocking EPA from enacting any regulation of GHGs.
Obama's Climate Czar-Carol Browner: The Washington Times reported that White House climate czar Carol Browner told a gathering in Boston earlier this month that it would be unlikely that the so-called "endangerment finding" would actually be used to regulate carbon dioxide.
She can only make this statement assuming a cap and trade bill passes. What if it doesn't? Or its significantly delayed? EPA cannot stop the train it has boarded. Without legislation the endangerment finding and ensuing regulations of GHGs under the Clean Air Act will be the regulatory mechanism.
Environmental Groups: All see this move as a game of chicken with Congress. As detailed in the blog, Solve Climate, environmental groups see the endangerment finding as pressuring Congress to Act. Still, given Washington, someone should be asking...what if the fail to?
Go it Slow Approach: As detailed in the Wall Street Journal, "on a conference call Friday with environmentalists, EPA officials stressed they would take a go-slow approach, holding two public hearings next month before the findings are official. After that, any new regulations would go through a public comment period, more hearings and a long review. New regulations driven by the finding could be years away."
This "go it slow" position assumes that the additional rules are need to trigger regulation of GHGs under the Clean Air Act. As detailed in my post, new new regulations could be needed. Regulation would start soon after the endangerment finding is finalized.