EPA Moves In

October 1, 2009

One must question the political wisdom of yesterday’s move by the Obama administration to bring the EPA in as a regulator of greenhouse gases.   Don’t get me wrong.  I’m a fan.  The EPA should be regulating greenhouse gases, just as they regulate all pollutants.  In this case, I think it’s fair to say that GHGs are pollutants, no matter their effect on the climate.   A glass of tomato juice is a pollutant when dumped in the ocean, even though it doesn’t much affect the ocean.

But what concerns me is the extent to which the introduction of this as a tactic may be overplaying the administration’s hand.

The move was timed to come on the same day that two Democratic senators, John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Barbara Boxer of California, introduced global warming and energy legislation that faces a steep climb to passage this year.

What has me swirling is confusion over how this may be interpreted.   What with Copenhagen coming up, the pressure’s on to deliver some climate bill, however symbolic, before December.  At the same time, the pressure’s on to deliver a public option as well.  Pushing too hard on climate regulation could cause health reform to fail, and vice versa.  At the same time, they could be mutually reinforcing.   I suppose that this is the administration’s strategy.

My suspicion is that this is something like the Rovian approach — assault the opposition with as much major policy stuff as possible, as fast as possible.  As it happens, I’m not a huge fan of Rove, and while I see the efficacy of his approach, I just don’t know if I feel terribly enthusiastic about its implication for democratic decision-making.

More substantively, the problem with this move is that EPA’s power to regulate will primarily be only on new sources of emissions, so it may offer an easy out for fence-sitting democrats who are concerned about looking too much like they’re marching in lock-step with the rest of the party.  In other words  EPA’s regulatory power is not sufficient to do the heavy lifting that’s needed to cut back emissions from US industry.  We need something really strong.  If EPA were to regulate in conjunction with the Kerry-Boxer/Waxman-Markey bill, in whatever form it passes, this would be considerably better.  So the question is whether this is jumping the gun.

It’ll be mighty interesting to see how things play out as health care and Kerry-Boxer wends its way through the senate.


  1. In your post, you confuse EPA’s regulatory authority under Sec. 202–mobile sources, and their authority under other sections of the Clean Air Act. With mobile sources, EPA can only regulate new mobile sources, but that not the case with stationary sources of emissions.

    If EPA starts regulating co2 under Sec. 202, the structure of the Clean Air Act requires them to regulate stationary sources as well, down to any source which emits 250 tons per year.

  2. “More substantively, the problem with this move is that EPA’s power to regulate will primarily be only on new sources of emissions…”

    IIRC, the courts have ruled that the EPA is justified in regulating power plants and factories that modernize or make other changes to their operations. This principle would extend GHG regulation far beyond new sources, at least if the EPA and the administration desire it.

    • Actually, once EPA finds that co2 endangers public health and welfare under Sec. 202 (the section that deals with mobile sources) they will be forced to regulate co2 under other sections of the Clean Air Act. It does not matter what EPA wants to do, the Clean Air Act isn’t written in a way to regulate only the co2 emission from mobile sources.

  3. some GHG’s are pollutants – CO2 is not – it is an essential component of the atmosphere for sustaining life on the planet and in the oceans.

  4. So we should have EPA regulate tomatoes? You’ve lost it already.

    • So silly, Johan. If Heinz dumps a bunch of ketchup in a nearby stream, you’d better believe regulators would be on that. In that case, they wouldn’t be regulating tomatoes. They’d be regulating pollutants.

  5. Everything is a pollutant, if in sufficient quantities or concentrations, in the wrong place.
    Hence, let EPA regulate anything it sees fit, right? Lunacy.

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