On April 1 the Environmental Protection Agency established rules restricting greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks, starting in 2012. This is the first of what could become a sweeping series of regulations stemming from the agency’s conclusion that greenhouse gases harm human health. If the EPA were to act robustly, it could achieve significant and immediate greenhouse gas emissions reductions using nothing more than existing laws and current technology. Doing so would signal to a waiting world that America is serious about addressing climate change.
But a dangerous assault on the agency is gathering momentum in Congress, corporate boardrooms, the media and the courts. The swarm of counterattacks all seek to strip the EPA of its power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources like coal-fired power plants. Some legislative proposals would even undo the EPA’s finding that greenhouse gases are hazardous, taking the EPA out of the climate fight altogether.
Wonkish at first glance, the fight over EPA rulemaking may be the most important environmental battle in a generation. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says rich countries like the United States must cut emissions 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020–only ten years away–and thereafter make precipitous cuts to almost zero emissions. If we don’t act now, average global temperatures will likely increase by more than 2 degrees Celsius and trigger self-compounding runaway climate change, resulting in a massive rise in sea levels, devastated agriculture and attendant social chaos. Not one of the climate change bills up for discussion meets this threshold, and it is looking increasingly unlikely that Congress will be able to pass any comprehensive climate change legislation this session. The failures of Congress and the harrowing facts of climate science mean that aggressive and immediate EPA action is essential.
From a legal perspective, the EPA has all the tools it needs to respond adequately to the climate crisis. In fact, "the United States has the strongest environmental laws in the world," says Kassie Siegel, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. The center specializes in suing the government when it violates green laws. "We don’t need new legislation. The Clean Air Act can achieve everything we need: a 40 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions over 1990 levels by 2020."
The two most important things the EPA can do are to halt any permitting of new coal-fired power plants–about fifty new plants are seeking approval–and to force all existing coal-fired facilities to make the technologically feasible switch to natural gas. If this "fuel switching" happened, total nonvehicle US emissions would be reduced by 13 percent or more in a matter of a year or two, say various experts. Natural gas is generally half as polluting as coal. But in the case of old, inefficient coal-fired plants, switching to gas can reduce emissions by as much as two-thirds.
And there is plenty of natural gas: discoveries have glutted the market, and prices are down more than 60 percent from their recent peak. Gas is not a solution; it merely offers a realistic "bridging fuel" as we move toward power generated from wind, solar, geothermal and hydro sources.
Perhaps the most far-reaching impact of EPA regulation would be to put a de facto price on carbon by leveling fines on greenhouse gas polluters. Such penalties could reach thousands per day, per violation. If targets for emissions reductions are tough enough, few coal plants will be able to meet them and will instead pay fines–what amounts to a carbon tax. Then a cheap source of energy would become expensive, which would drive investment away from fossil fuels toward carbon-neutral forms of energy.