EPA’s Regulation of Greenhouse Gases: What are the Facts?
With EPA’s recent announcement of timelines for additional regulation of greenhouse gases (utility and refinery sectors) and the arrival in town this week of the new Congress, the shouting about EPA’s regulatory actions has already begun. Many of these claims are clearly political posturing – the facts are that schools, churches, and libraries will NOT be subject to regulations, there will NOT be a moratorium on all new industrial facilities for at least 18 months, and new coal plants will NOT be banned. But it is also true that regulating greenhouse gases (GHGs) has the potential to substantially impact our economy and is critical to reducing the risks and costs associated with climate change. The critical challenge facing EPA is how to properly balance the costs of reducing GHG emissions against the benefits of limiting climate change. How EPA balances these interests demands a serious discussion. In an effort to lower the volume and better inform future discussions about EPA’s use of its regulatory authority, the following are key factors that should be considered.
1. EPA is not overreaching by regulating greenhouse gases (GHGs) under the Clean Air Act but is doing so in direct response to the Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling in Mass. v. EPA.
Some have incorrectly claimed that EPA has overstepped its authority in regulating greenhouse gases and is attempting to regulate GHGs even though Congress failed to pass climate legislation last year. In fact, it is the Supreme Court in 2007 that clarified that EPA had the authority to regulate GHGs under the existing Clean Air Act. EPA had denied a petition by some states and environmental groups calling on it to begin regulating GHGs under the existing Clean Air Act. The Supreme Court rejected EPA’s claim that the Clean Air Act does not apply to GHGs and held that these emissions meet the definition of an “air pollutant” under the Act. The court held that “under the Act’s clear terms, EPA can avoid promulgating regulations only if it determines that greenhouse gases do not contribute to climate change or if it provides some reasonable explanation as to why it cannot or will not exercise its discretion to determine whether they do.” Based on its extensive review of the scientific evidence in its endangerment finding, EPA reached the only conclusion that the evidence supported – that GHG emissions cause or contribute to air pollution, which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare and, therefore, are subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act.
2. EPA’s regulations will not require unproven technologies, impose excessive costs at a time when our economy is hurting, or harm small and previously unregulated sources.
There are legitimate concerns that the Clean Air Act was not developed specifically with GHGs in mind and these emissions are different in fundamental ways from traditional hazardous and criteria pollutants covered by the Act. As a result, EPA has gone to great lengths to “tailor” its regulations -- for example, with respect to new source permitting -- in such a way that only the largest sources of GHGs are covered. This tailoring rule has been challenged in courts (along with all other GHG regulations). If it is overturned, Congressional intervention would likely be necessary. But the Clean Air Act includes many provisions that minimize compliance costs, and many of its fundamental requirements apply equally well to regulating GHGs. For example, the Act requires that technological feasibility and costs be considered in setting emission performance standards and allows for different requirements for new and existing sources. In its guidance to states on what constitutes “best available control technology,” EPA has focused on energy efficiency technologies as a means to achieve both reductions in GHG emissions and cost savings to firms. The agency has also made it clear that the use of coal as a fuel can be continued under its guidelines. While EPA regulations will impose some costs on firms, based on guidance to date, those costs are likely to be modest and will result in far greater benefits than costs to society.
3. Delaying any EPA regulatory actions would be bad for business and bad for the climate.
Delaying regulations by EPA will allow some firms to avoid compliance costs in the near term but will increase overall costs over the longer term. For firms in states already facing GHG requirements (e.g., utilities in 10 northeast and mid-Atlantic states, large emitters in California), any delay in EPA regulations are not likely to alter the requirements they face. For firms in other locations that are planning facilities with long lifetimes, some are likely to install the same technology that would be required by EPA in an effort to avoid more expensive retrofits in the near future. These firms would prefer the certainty of knowing what regulatory requirements they must meet prior to making large capital investments. Finally, delay in reducing GHG emissions will result in greater economic harm throughout our society as families and communities face the costs associated with increases in extreme weather (droughts and floods), impacts from sea level rise, limits on the availability of water resources, and other climate impacts.
4. EPA’s regulatory actions are not a form of backdoor cap and trade or an energy tax.
Congress rejected a comprehensive cap-and-trade approach to regulating GHG in its last session. EPA’s approach does not rely on a cap-and-trade regime and is far from comprehensive. EPA’s regulations focused first on the transportation sector with the issuance of widely supported standards for light-duty vehicles and proposed standards for medium and heavy-duty vehicles. On the stationary source side, EPA first targeted the largest new sources and major modifications of existing sources and recently announced plans to develop new source performance standards for the electric utility and refinery sectors. Such standards are the traditional approach used under the Clean Air Act and are generally implemented through state programs.The regulations are being developed on a timeframe consistent with Clean Air Act requirements covering other pollutants to allow covered sources the flexibility of developing compliance plans that cost-effectively meet a comprehensive set of requirements.
5. EPA is not attempting to meet the same reduction requirements that were rejected by the last Congress.
The House-passed climate change bill called for reductions in GHG emissions of 17 percent of 2005 levels by 2020, increasing to reductions of over 80 percent by 2050. EPA’s use of the Clean Air Act is not likely to produce emission reductions of the magnitude or in the timeframe set forth in the legislation proposed last year.
6. Important questions do need to be addressed in moving forward.
EPA’s initial set of regulations represent an important beginning in addressing the risks associated with climate change but also raise important issues. In moving forward, several questions will need to be addressed:
* How will EPA’s regulation be implemented in a manner consistent with current and future state actions?
* Given market forces driving utilities toward increased use of natural gas, the regulatory uncertainty that currently exists, and the age and fuel mix of the current utility fleet, what is the likely future role of coal in this sector?
* As EPA moves forward in regulating stationary sources through the use of emission performance standards, how might it be able to provide flexibility to regulated sources to achieve cost-effective reductions?
* How might EPA regulatory actions specific to utilities interact with possible Congressional interest in a clean energy standard?
Steve Seidel is Vice President for Policy Analysis