EPA Moves Toward GHG Regulation as U.N. Climate Conference Opens

EPA Moves Toward GHG Regulation as U.N. Climate Conference Opens

As world leaders began gathering in Copenhagen Monday to draft a new climate change treaty, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) formally declared greenhouse gases to be a threat to public health and the environment.

The widely anticipated move -- which singled out vehicle emissions as a contributor to climate change -- sets the stage for the agency to begin regulating the emissions blamed for climate change. It also puts pressure on Congress to take the lead in drafting climate change legislation rather than allow the EPA to regulate pollution under the Clean Air Act.

The endangerment declaration is needed before the EPA can regulate emissions, as determined by a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that greenhouse gas emissions meet the Clean Air Act's definition of air pollutants. Now the EPA can move forward with new light-duty vehicle emissions standards unveiled earlier in May, which would raise corporate average fuel economy to 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016.

"Today's announcement, on its own, does not impose any new requirements on industry," EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in announcing the endangerment finding. "But, today's announcement is the prerequisite for strong new emissions standards for cars and trucks: the ones the president announced last spring.

Specifically, the EPA found that greenhouse gas emissions -- carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride -- cause climate change, which can cause extreme heat waves that put the sick, poor and elderly at risk. Greenhouse gas emissions also drive up ground-level ozone pollution that aggravates a number of health issues, such as asthma and respiratory infections.

Many argue climate change regulation under the guide of the Clean Air Act would cost more than the bills working their way through Congress.

"The question is not whether climate change poses a threat, but whether the Clean Air Act is the best vehicle to address it," the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers (AIAM) said in a statement. "AIAM believes the Clean Air Act is ill-suited for this task."

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Waxman-Markey bill in June, while the Boxer-Kerry climate change legislation is being considered in the Senate. Both bills aim to reduce emissions between 17 percent and 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. President Barack Obama is expected to pledge at the U.N. Climate Change conference the U.S. to emissions cuts of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

That translates to a 4 percent cut below 1990 levels, which is the baseline used by most countries. The European Union has pledged to reduce emissions by at least 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and may even increase its target to 30 percent.