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U.S. declares warming gases are health threat

Coal Campaign
This coal-fired power plant is one of some 600 across the United States that together provide half of the country's electricity — and much of its greenhouse gas emissions.Charlie Riedel / AP
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Having received White House backing, the Environmental Protection Agency declared Friday that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are a significant threat to human health and thus will be listed as pollutants under the Clean Air Act — a policy the Bush administration rejected.

"This finding confirms that greenhouse gas pollution is a serious problem now and for future generations," EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a statement.

The move could allow the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases, but it's more likely that the Obama administration will use the action to prod Congress to pass regulations around a system to cap and then trade emissions so that they are gradually lowered.

Indeed, the EPA emphasized that the congressional route was preferred to EPA regulation. "Both President (Barack) Obama and Administrator Jackson have repeatedly indicated their preference for comprehensive legislation to address this issue and create the framework for a clean energy economy," the EPA said in its statement.

The EPA last month sent its proposal to the White House Office of Management and Budget, which reviewed and approved it. By law, the decision includes a 60-day public comment period before being finalized.

The EPA concluded that six greenhouse gases should be considered pollutants under the 1970 Clean Air Act, which is already used to curb emissions that cause acid rain, smog and soot.

Discussion to begin on regulation
But its declaration does not spell out how or what to regulate. Instead, the EPA and lawmakers are expected to begin that discussion.

Congress is considering imposing an economy-wide cap on greenhouse gas emissions along with giving industry the ability to trade emission allowances to mitigate costs. Legislation could be considered by the House before the August congressional recess.

The chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., urged the EPA to use the Clean Air Act to start "cutting greenhouse gas emissions right now."

"However," she added, "the best and most flexible way to deal with this serious problem is to enact a market based cap and trade system, which will help us make the transition to clean energy and will bring us innovation and strong economic growth."

Boxer added that she wouldn't hesitate to use the EPA as leverage. "If Congress does not act to pass legislation, then I will call on EPA to take all steps authorized by law to protect our families," she added.

In their recommendations, EPA scientists said that potential health impacts from warming include:

  • longer and more severe heat waves;
  • increased smog in some areas;
  • dangerous flooding caused by stronger storms;
  • and diseases, including malaria and dengue fever, related to flooding and warmer weather.

Jackson on Friday said curbing greenhouse gases fits in with Obama's call for "a low carbon economy" as well as lawmakers' actions toward clean energy and climate legislation. "This pollution problem has a solution," she said, "one that will create millions of green jobs and end our country’s dependence on foreign oil."

Shift started with Supreme Court
The Bush administration refused to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, even though the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007 prodded the federal government to do so.

In his first week in office, Obama directed the EPA to review a decision by the Bush administration denying California and other states the right to control auto emissions, which, along with pollution from coal-fired power plants, are a major source of greenhouse gases.

Environmentalists praised the EPA move, but urged the administration to use the Clean Air Act until Congress comes up with a plan.

The EPA should be required "to follow up with standards under the Clean Air Act, the nation's most effective environmental law, to curb carbon pollution from our cars, power plants and other industrial sources," said David Doniger, climate policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Frank O'Donnell, director of Clean Air Watch, said he expected federal limits on "emissions from the biggest sources, including power plants and motor vehicles."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other industry lobbying groups oppose using the Clean Air Act to regulate emissions.

"It will require a huge cascade of (new clean air) permits" and halt a wide array of projects, from building coal plants to highway construction, including many at the heart of economic recovery plan, Bill Kovacs, a vice president for environmental issues at the chamber, said when the EPA's recommendations were made last month.

Other critics have noted that the Clean Air Act regulates any stationary source — from a gas station to a power plant — that emits more than 250 tons of a pollutant a year. That would place thousands of smaller sources under onerous federal rules, those critics say.

Supporters of stricter regulations say the Clean Air Act could be revised to exempt smaller sources and focus on large ones like power plants.

Some industry groups support a legislative approach focusing on cap and trade, but even there they are cautious.

"While regulation can be challenged in court if it oversteps precedent, legislation is for keeps," said Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a power industry trade group. "Therefore, any legislative proposal on climate change must have reasonable timetables and targets, adequate cost containment, and must be sensitive to technological constraints and international competition."

Nations working on new treaty
The United States is under pressure to take some action on global warming in advance of negotiations on a new international treaty in December.

The Obama administration has vowed to step up participation, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton even has a climate envoy.

The Bush administration refused to participate in the current treaty, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, citing a lack of participation by developing countries and harm to the U.S. economy. In the late 1990s, during the Clinton administration, the Senate balked at ratifying the agreement.