Saturday, April 18, 2009


Yesterday the EPA finally determined that carbon dioxide is a threat to human health due to the threat of catastrophic climate change. Their determination was forced by a Supreme Court decision that asserted a mandate to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. That decision was announced two years ago, yet the Bush administration found ways to kick the endangerment can down the road long enough to avoid having to take any decisive action. The White House actually refused to accept an EPA endangerment finding in late 2007.

So far, this is just an acknowledgment of the problem with no new regulations:

The Administrator signed a proposal with two distinct findings regarding greenhouse gases under section 202(a) of the Clean Air Act:
  • 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.
  • 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.
Today’s 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.
Now that the EPA has officially acknowledged anthropogenic climate change, what will happen next? The Obama administration has stated its preference that climate change be addressed via legislation rather than agency regulations. A dedicated climate bill might have the benefit of bypassing some legal challenges and making the regulations more difficult for future administrations to undo. Such a bill is still working its way through Congress and may not be passed for several months, if ever. The endangerment finding clearly puts some pressure on recalcitrant senators to produce a bill they can tolerate rather than risk a harsher regulations from the EPA.

At the same time, the EPA is obligated to regulate greenhouse gas emissions once it determines that they are a threat to public health. That will come 60 days from now after the public comment period has passed. Kate Sheppard at Grist has more information about what those regulations might entail.