Editorial

EPA: Regulate greenhouse gases

Agency has authority, responsibility

December 29, 2010 

Given the state of science and politics, the Environmental Protection Agency has no choice but to move ahead on regulating greenhouse gases.

It would have been better if Congress had enacted limits on the heat-trapping emissions as part of a comprehensive energy package.

But energy legislation — including billions of dollars for developing carbon-capture by coal-fired power plants and a market-based cap and trade system — bogged down hopelessly in the Senate.

With more deniers of climate change swelling Republican ranks after the November election, the next Congress certainly can't be counted on to address global warming.

EPA's detractors, including energy industry lobbyists and coal-state politicians, are declaring that the new standards will crush any prospects for economic recovery and that the Obama administration is misusing executive power to circumvent an elected Congress.

In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the EPA has the authority and responsibility to regulate heat-trapping emissions. That 5-4 ruling came in a lawsuit brought by several states demanding curbs on greenhouse gases.

Certain industries will always declare the end of the world anytime they are subjected to new environmental standards. One prime example is acid-rain regulations in the 1980s. Utilities warned then of all sorts of dire economic consequences if they were forced to curb sulfur and nitrogen emissions that were killing forests. But the economy and republic survived just fine, along with the trees.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected a request by utilities, the oil industry and state of Texas to delay EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. The court upheld EPA's authority to require power plants to utilize the best available technology for controlling heat-trapping gases. EPA plans to have the new standards in place by 2012.

Smart executives in the energy industry have been preparing for this day. Without congressional funding for untested and expensive carbon-capture technologies, electrical utilities will increasingly shift to natural gas, which produces about half the greenhouse gases of coal.

In other words, the coal industry would have been smarter to have supported the dreaded cap-and-trade legislation because of all the subsidies it provided for "clean coal" technologies.

The year that's ending is expected to go down as one of the three or four hottest since records began in 1850, despite the cooling effect of La Nina, according to the World Meteorological Organization, which reports that the past decade has been the hottest on record.

Climate scientists say it's statistically impossible that the warming trend is the result of natural variability and not human activity.

It's unconscionable that so many elected leaders of the world's largest economy and leading democracy are abdicating their responsibility to address climate change and its many frightening implications.

But at least the EPA is moving in the right direction.

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