WASHINGTON — Capping years of work by U.S. government scientists, the Environmental Protection Agency on Friday declared that the heating of Earth's climate from fossil fuel use threatens human health and the environment.
The decision paves the way for the EPA to order the nation's first mandatory reductions of global warming emissions.
Congress is working on legislation that also would require emissions reductions. President Barack Obama and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said they'd prefer using a new law, rather than EPA rules, to make the reductions and spur renewable energy. The EPA's announcement on Friday, however, serves notice that if Congress doesn't take action, the EPA will.
The EPA had no choice but to make a declaration on whether the science is clear that global warming poses risks. The Supreme Court in 2007 ruled that greenhouse gas emissions were pollutants under the Clean Air Act and ordered the EPA to determine whether they harmed health and welfare or whether the science was too uncertain to make a judgment.
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The EPA's response on Friday was that the scientific evidence required action to reduce risks. U.S. and international climate scientists agree that observed changes in the atmosphere, oceans and ice show the world is warming because of human actions, and that the trend carries risks of irreversible climate disruption that could persist for centuries.
Scientists have charted an increase in Earth's average temperature in recent decades, as the amount of these gases in the atmosphere has grown to levels higher than any time in human history. The EPA's statement, a proposed "endangerment finding," was based on peer-reviewed scientific analysis of the effects of an accumulation of emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels.
"This finding confirms that greenhouse gas pollution is a serious problem now and for future generations. Fortunately, it follows President Obama's call for a low-carbon economy and strong leadership in Congress on clean energy and climate legislation," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. "This pollution problem has a solution — one that will create millions of green jobs and end our country's dependence on foreign oil."
The EPA document reported that climate change's effects on health could include more droughts, more extreme and more frequent heat waves, more intense storms, rising sea levels and harm to water resources, agriculture, and plants and animals in the wild. The EPA noted that the very young, the elderly and those in poor health could suffer the most harm.
It also found that climate change could threaten national security if it triggered wars or mass migrations as resources became scarce.
The EPA will issue a final version of the finding after a period of public comment. Then EPA will hold more hearings as it prepares to write the rules. It gave no indication on Friday of what kind of rules it might produce. The high court ruling was on motor vehicle emissions, but the scope of regulations could be expanded.
Environmental groups praised the agency.
"President Obama is taking it to the hoop when it comes to our most pressing problems," said David Bookbinder, Sierra Club's chief climate counsel, in a statement.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said that EPA scientists had "given us a warning that global warming pollution is a clear, present and future danger to America's families."
The Bush administration's EPA prepared an endangerment finding, but decided at the last minute not to release it. That decision meant that the agency was blocked from setting mandatory regulations.
Republican leaders called Friday's decision reckless and declared that any regulations it devised would be unnecessarily expensive.
Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., the chairman of the House GOP American Energy Solutions Group, a group of lawmakers whose mission is to lower energy costs, said the EPA regulations would result in "massive new national energy costs" and was "completely irresponsible."
Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a lobby group for power companies, said that more than 20 industrial sectors depend on fossil fuels, and many others rely on the feedstocks and other products made from coal, oil and natural gas. He warned of "severe trauma to the economy" if eventual regulations reduced coal use by a third.
Segal said that it would be better to have a law to address climate change than EPA regulations, but any law "must have reasonable timetables and targets, adequate cost containment, and must be sensitive to technological constraints and international competition."
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said the EPA decision makes it difficult for businesses to make investment or construction plans because they don't know what the new regulations will be. He accused the Obama administration of playing a game of chicken with Congress: "Either pass legislation, or force economically damaging new regulations on businesses."
The Chamber of Commerce, which says that cutting emissions would be too expensive, has argued that regulations eventually could cover sources of small amounts of emissions, such as individual motels or hospitals.
David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council, however, said it's "not true" that EPA would have to regulate everything. "EPA is able to focus on the big stuff, the big sources of global warming pollution, and the two biggest are motor vehicles and power plants," said Doniger, who directs the environmental advocacy group's climate policy center.
Environmentalists said the EPA's action also was important because it could give some heft to efforts to get an international agreement on emissions reductions due in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December.
"Yes, we have a global problem, everybody acknowledges it, but right now we're the world's second largest emitter and unless we show we are willing to regulate and limit our emissions we are not going to get an international agreement," said Bookbinder, of the Sierra Club.
Democrats who back climate legislation in Congress have a goal of getting a final bill by the fall, before the international talks. They acknowledge, however, that they face strong opposition and uncertain chances.
Action is starting in the House of Representatives, where Democrats have presented a draft of climate legislation that would put a limit on national emissions that would decline each year and require companies to buy permits for the pollution. The system is known as "cap-and-trade," because companies that have extra permits could sell them to those that need more.
The costs of the program at the moment are impossible to assess because the draft says it remains to be worked out how to hold down costs for consumers and businesses. Suggestions include giving the revenues from permits back to consumers and giving some free permits to companies.
1999 — Environmental and renewable energy groups filed a legal petition requesting that the Clinton administration EPA regulate greenhouse gas emission from cars and trucks under the Clean Air Act.
2003 — The Bush administration denied the petition. It said that it lacked authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases to fight climate change, and that even if it did have the authority it chose not to do so. Environmental groups sued over the denial.
April 2007 — The Supreme Court ruled that the EPA did have authority to regulate the emissions under the law. It said the EPA had to determine whether greenhouse gases endangered health and welfare or whether the science was too uncertain to know.
December 2007: The Bush administration prepared a proposal for finding that the emissions endangered the environment, but didn't release it.
July 2008: The Bush administration called for further comments on potential regulations of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.
April 17, 2009: The EPA issued the "endangerment finding." It said that the emissions endanger both health and the environment. Such a finding requires the EPA to take action to prevent that harm.
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