EPA’s Role in Addressing Global Warming

By JIM DIPESO, REP’s policy director

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Jim delivered this speech at REP’s annual conference in San Diego, California, on September 13, 2003.


Dr. Gillman and Mr. Buckheit have brought their wealth of experience and knowledge to a discussion of issues that are critically important for public health and environmental protection.

Now, I’m going to focus on the issue that may have the largest implications for public health and the environment in the years ahead – global warming and EPA’s existing and potential role in addressing the problem.

First, let me set the stage with some context.

Last week, the California Air Resources Board approved the most far-reaching plan to lower greenhouse gas emissions that any state has ever attempted. Acting under the authority of a 2002 state law – a law that enjoys the support of Governor Schwarzenegger – the board adopted limits on motor vehicle emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that trap heat and lead to global warming.

The standards are due to take effect in 2006 and apply starting in model year 2009. The California board estimates that the new standards will cut motor vehicle greenhouse gas emissions significantly, 30 percent by 2016.
Seven other states, including five New England states, New York and New Jersey, are likely to consider adopting California’s rule as their own.

California acted while Floridians were boarding up their windows to prepare for the fourth hurricane to hit the state this season. Now, no one can credibly say that those four Florida hurricanes were the product of global warming. Weather from year to year is influenced by many variables, including natural temperature cycles such as the North Atlantic Oscillation and El Nino in the Pacific.

But what we can say is that there is a body of research projecting that global warming could mean greater risk of more intense hurricanes. For example, recent modeling work at a federal research center, the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, projects that rising sea surface temperatures could lead to hurricanes with stronger winds and increased rainfall.

The key issue here is risk. The California Legislature and the state Air Resources Board made a judgment that the risks of global warming warrant regulatory action to reduce emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

The California board treated carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions as a pollutant. Now, anytime you get into discussions about global warming, one of the controversial issues that keeps coming up is this: is carbon dioxide a pollutant?

Those who are skeptical that global warming is taking place or that we can do anything about it often say that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant. They argue that carbon dioxide is a natural component of the atmosphere. Plants take it in, we breathe it out. There is even this outfit called the Greening Earth Society, which argues that more carbon dioxide would be good because it would encourage more plant growth.

Those arguments are oversimplifications that ignore context. What is good in one set of circumstances is bad in another set.

For example, nitrogen is an essential nutrient found in fertilizers That farmers use to enrich their soils and improve their crops. That’s good. However, if too much nitrogen runs off the farm and into a lake, that can lead to a series of biochemical changes that result in fish die-offs. That’s bad. So, is nitrogen a pollutant? In some contexts, yes. In others, no.

There’s a new phrase that’s entered the environmental lexicon: Biological pollution, which is another way of referring to invasive species. Invasive species are everywhere. In my part of the world near Seattle, you have Himalayan blackberries. For two weeks in August, you can live off the output of Himalayan blackberry bushes on every roadside in the Seattle area.

Let’s get local. Take the water chestnut. Water chestnut is a native of Southeast Asia. But in Southeastern Pennsylvania, the water chestnut is considered an invasive species. The commonwealth’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources asks people not to plant them. So, is the water chestnut a pollutant? In Southeast Asia, no. In Southeastern Pennsylvania, yes.

The same goes for carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is an essential plant nutrient and is one of several greenhouse gases that hold in heat and make the Earth warm enough to support our kind of life. But atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are rising as a result of fossil fuel combustion and other human activities. Since 1860, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 has gone by more than one-third, an extremely rapid rate of increase in the context of geologic time.

Higher levels of carbon dioxide trap more heat, like throwing another blanket on the bed. There is compelling evidence that the climate has begun to change. Ice fields are melting worldwide. Sea levels are rising. Ecological relationships that are cued to seasonal changes are coming unhinged. Inuit people in the polar regions have noticed robins. They don’t have a word for robins.

Rising CO2 levels create more heat energy in the atmosphere, bringing the risk of costly spin-off effects. Anybody up for more heat waves in Philadelphia? Well, you’re like to get them. There is evidence that rainfall has increased in southeastern Pennsylvania, which could lead to increased risk of flooding.

At the outer end of the risk envelope is the specter of abrupt climate change – that greenhouse gas concentrations will rise past a tipping point that triggers severe outcomes that catastrophically over-stress global social and economic systems.

California based its recent action on potential health risks of climate change, such as increased heat stress and reduced mountain snowpack.

So, in the context of climate change risks, California saw fit to Regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as pollutants emitted by motor vehicles.

So, two questions now arise, can EPA regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant and will it?

First, let us remember that EPA is one agency run by an administration that has set its political priorities. The administration will not support caps on carbon dioxide emissions. EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt will not propose caps on carbon dioxide emissions.

Let’s clarify something about global warming skepticism. Global warming skeptics are not monolithic. Global warming skepticism falls onto a four-point spectrum. At the most extreme, those at Point A say global warming is not happening at all. Others at Point B say, well, yes, it’s happening, but it’s mostly caused by natural factors. Those at Point C say, it’s happening, humans have helped cause it, but there’s nothing we can do about it without wrecking the economy. Finally, those at Point D say that it’s happening, we probably ought to Do something, but we should wait and do more research. The administration falls somewhere between Point C and Point D.

So, does the Clean Air Act authorize regulation of carbon dioxide on the grounds that it is linked to potentially harmful climate change?

In August 2003, EPA’s general counsel said no. In response to a petition filed by several environmental groups, he ruled that EPA has no statutory authority to regulate carbon dioxide in order to address global climate change.

Therefore, EPA cannot use the Clean Air Act to initiate the kind of emissions reduction standards that California just adopted. In fairness to EPA, the California action was specifically mandated by a state law. There was no room for interpretation. The board was acting under clear statutory direction.

In announcing its ruling last year, EPA hastened to add that it is concerned about global warming and pointed to the administration’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas intensity 18 percent by 2012. Let me dwell on this issue for a bit, because this can easily lead to confusion.

Reducing greenhouse gas intensity is not the same as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This is junior high math. Intensity refers to greenhouse gases emitted per dollar of GDP. You can lower greenhouse gas intensity and still have higher greenhouse gas emissions.

Let me illustrate. You have two baseball players, one playing for the Philadelphia Phillies — I will say hooray to please my audience — the Other playing for the axis of baseball evil — the New York Yankees. The Philly is batting .300, a statistic that tells you his number of hits per at-bat, his batting intensity, if you will. The Yankee is batting .333, which is a higher batting intensity. Yet all of you baseball fans know that it’s perfectly possible for the Philly with the lower batting average to rack up more hits over the course of a season than the Yankee. Lower batting average, more hits.

Lower greenhouse gas intensity, more greenhouse gas emissions.

Anyway, the EPA general counsel’s 2003 ruling reversed a ruling adopted by one of his predecessors in 1998. The 1998 ruling noted that the Clean Air Act’s definition of a pollutant includes “any physical, chemical, biological, or radioactive substance that is emitted into or otherwise enters the ambient air.” The 1998 ruling noted that regulations can be initiated if EPA determines that such pollutants harm public health, welfare, or the environment. The law’s definition of public welfare covers climate and weather.

A number of states have different opinions about EPA’s authority.

In June 2003, the states of Connecticut, Maine and Massachusetts, filed litigation to require EPA to regulate carbon dioxide as a “criteria” air pollutant. A criteria air pollutant is one for which EPA sets ambient air standards, in other words, how clean the air must be.

The suit alleges that EPA had failed its legal duty to list carbon dioxide as a pollutant and initiate regulation.

In October 2003, 12 states, three cities, one territory, and several environmental organizations sued EPA over a number of issues, including the issue of whether carbon dioxide is a pollutant.

We’ll let the courts decide the legal issues. Here are the practical politics. If there is a second Bush term and the administration’s view prevails in court, you will most likely see the status quo continuing – an emphasis on climate research and voluntary emissions reductions measures. Mike Leavitt won’t change that even if he had a fancy to do so.
If there is a second Bush term and if the states’ litigation succeeds In forcing EPA to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant, then I think what you would see is a drawn-out bureaucratic struggle that most likely would push the issue into the administration of President So and So taking office on January 20, 2009.

If John Kerry wins, the entire federal environmental apparatus in DC will be rebooted. The new administration could agree to settle the lawsuits by developing some sort of carbon dioxide standard.

But for at least the next 30 days, that is idle speculation. We’ll leave the reading of tea leaves and chicken entrails to the political pundits. Where is EPA today on global warming?

The administration emphasizes the need for more climate research.

EPA is participating in a multi-agency Climate Change Science Program. EPA’s research program is focusing on the potential effects of climate change on human health, air quality, water quality, and natural ecosystems.

A key goal of the Climate Change Science Program is to reduce uncertainties on how the climate will change in the future.

EPA also offers a number of voluntary greenhouse gas reduction and related clean energy programs. There is Energy Star, which is a labeling standard for energy-efficient consumer products and buildings. Companies can join assorted voluntary programs for reducing greenhouse gas emissions..

Companies today can voluntarily report greenhouse gas emissions reductions to the federal government. One of the more unusual such reports was filed a few years ago by AES, an independent power producer. AES reported cutting 919 metric tons of methane by altering the diet of cattle in India. Basically, it was equivalent to giving cows Bean-O to reduce their output of methane.

Now, this is all well and good. Climate change is very complex and there is a great deal we have to learn about how it could play out and what the impacts could be. The voluntary programs are valuable and produce results. In particular, Energy Star has done very well in helping consumers easily find products with superior energy efficiency performance. The next time you’re in the market for a new refrigerator, please buy an Energy Star model. The more such products people buy, the more we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electric power generation.

But here’s the $64 question. Are the research projects and voluntary programs sufficient to begin getting a handle on a problem that we and our descendants will be dealing with for generations to come. This is where the administration and its critics part ways.

British Petroleum is one of several companies that has taken the position that early action in reducing greenhouse gas emissions is called for. Earlier this year, BP’s Distinguishd Advisor said something that is both very simple and very powerful that gets to the science of human psychology. You need to set targets if you’re doing to deliver something. Without targets that are enforced, you don’t have any way of mobilizing resources, expanding the effectiveness of market incentives, providing the planning certainty that industries need, or assessing progress.

As the BP representative told the conference, voluntary caps are an interesting way to get started, but regulated caps are needed to make the system work well.

The legal and semantic controversies on whether EPA can regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant are all very interesting, but they are a sideshow that we may have to bypass. Let’s just get a bill that explicitly says so and get on with reducing greenhouse emissions.

Which brings us to the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act. At its most essential, the bill would cap greenhouse gas emissions by utilities and other large commercial/industrial sectors. The bill would give value to emissions reductions by making them tradable in the market, a technique that has been used successfully to reduce power plant emissions of sulfur dioxide pollution.

When you create a market, that sets in motion the dynamic forces of invention, engineering, and entrepreneurship that develop technologies and business practices that lead us to slap our foreheads and wonder why no one had thought of them before.

The McCain-Lieberman bill would assign critically important tasks to EPA. One would be starting up and operating a national database of greenhouse gas emissions, and likewise running a registry where companies would report their reduction and/or sequestration of greenhouse gases. The second would be the heart of the matter – enforcing the emissions caps and developing the rules that would guide the market in tradable emissions allowances.

It’s only a matter of time before McCain-Lieberman or something similar passes. Business, especially transnational corporations, see that much of the rest of the world is moving toward carbon caps. States like California are moving in that direction. At some point, business is going to grab Washington by the coat lapels and demand a federal cap-and-trade system that will bring them certainty. The CEO of Xcel Energy, the nation’s fourth largest utility, told Business Week magazine the following:

“Give us a date, tell us how much we need to cut, give us the flexibility to meet the goals, and we’ll get it done.”

When that day comes, the EPA that has been central to a great deal of environmental progress over the last 35 years will have a critical role to play in developing and enforcing the standards, working with the private sector, and overseeing the scientific research that will help us adjust as we go along.

I am confident that EPA has the research capabilities and public policy smarts to do the job – provided, there is political will in both the executive and legislative branches to give EPA the support and resources it will need to do it.