With the disappointing, but not unexpected, Copenhagen climate summit behind us, the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question here at home remains unanswered: Will Congress act on climate legislation this year? In the absence of any significant legislative progress, the Environmental Protection Agency upped the ante heading into the Copenhagen conference with its finding that greenhouse gas emissions contribute to air pollution that endangers public health and welfare. The next domestic battle in the climate wars was thereby joined.
The “endangerment finding” was long in coming and has potentially significant consequences for all of us. Several years ago, Massachusetts and others petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency, under a provision of the Clean Air Act, to declare that greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles endanger public health and welfare. A finding of endangerment triggers EPA’s obligation to begin controlling those emissions. The Bush Administration declined to play ball, taking the position that greenhouse gases are not pollutants under the law and refusing to engage on the matter. Resulting litigation worked its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which begged to differ. In 2007, the court ordered EPA to respond to the petition.
The most immediate impact of the endangerment finding will be increased average fuel economy standards for cars and trucks, starting with model year 2012. That part is easy. A deal has already been forged with the auto industry to increase mileage standards steadily over the next several years, although the target of 35 miles per gallon by 2020 is hardly revolutionary. Most other industrialized countries already have significantly higher efficiency standards.
The much harder part is what to do with everything else. The Clean Air Act contains the same endangerment trigger for stationary sources of air pollution. Having made the endangerment finding, EPA must now figure out how to regulate greenhouse gas emissions (primarily carbon dioxide) from all non-vehicle sources. We have known since the summer that EPA is focused on developing performance standards for major industrial polluters.
But some in the environmental community are pushing for more comprehensive regulation under the Clean Air Act. In early December, two groups filed their own petition with EPA, seeking to have the agency establish national pollution limits for greenhouse gases. National pollution limits differ from the emissions caps envisioned in various climate bills now before Congress. Those bills allocate rights to emit greenhouse pollutants and create a market where such rights can be bought and sold. National pollution limits, by contrast, are actual air quality target levels, much like the ozone and particulate standards with which many Californians are familiar. Once targets are established, it is largely up to state and local governments to achieve them through control measures developed in a state implementation plan.