The Obama administration on Tuesday agreed to review whether it should regulate carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants, portending a major reversal of the Bush administration's policy on global warming.
The Environmental Protection Agency granted a petition from environmental groups seeking to overturn a Bush-era EPA memo that prohibited controls of those emissions.
"I am granting this petition because we must learn more about how this memo affects all relevant stakeholders impacted by its provisions,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a statement.
Sierra Club lawyer David Bookbinder welcomed the move, saying it "stops the Bush administration's final, last-minute effort to saddle President Obama with its do-nothing policy on global warming."
"With coal-fired power plants emitting more than 30 percent of our global warming pollution, regulating their carbon dioxide is essential to making real progress in the fight against global warming," he said in a statement.
The petition was filed by the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund. The groups had sued to overturn the Bush-era rule in court, but said the litigation would now be put on hold as a result of the EPA decision.
In a letter to the petitioners Tuesday, Jackson noted that on Dec. 18 outgoing EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson issued the rule despite a finding by the EPA's own Environmental Appeals Board that "EPA had not adequately explained why the program did not apply to carbon dioxide."
Bookbinder said he expects the EPA to eventually regulate carbon dioxide from coal plants, in part because the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007 said the authority to do so existed.
"Today's announcement should cast significant further doubt on the approximately 100 coal-fired power plants that the industry is trying to rush through the permitting process without any limits on carbon dioxide," Bookbinder said.
Fears of 'costly' result
Industry representatives did not immediately react to today's decision, but they had earlier praised Johnson's December rule restricting emissions controls.
If the EPA had determined the Clean Air Act could be used to place limits on carbon dioxide, many other sources beyond power plants would have been impacted, Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, an association of power companies, said at the time.
"A contrary result might have caused office and apartment buildings, schools and hospitals, and over 20 different industrial sectors to be subject to costly and inflexible permitting requirements," Segal said.
The Obama administration has moved quickly to reverse or reconsider Bush-era environmental policies.
On Feb. 6, the EPA said it would consider more stringent mercury controls at power plants and agreed to reconsider whether to grant California and other states the authority to cut C02 emissions by new cars and light trucks — a request the Bush administration had denied.
Also this month, the Interior Department withdrew oil and natural gas drilling leases near two national parks in Utah. And it shelved a draft plan to open much of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to drilling.
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