Friday, April 08, 2011

Congress Defers to EPA on Climate Policy

The confrontation over climate policy that was teed up by the results of last November's mid-term election culminated with the House of Representatives voting overwhelmingly yesterday to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its power to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. However, the more crucial votes took place on Wednesday, when the Senate defeated a string of amendments that would have similarly blocked EPA's powers to regulate CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs), whether entirely, only for specific sectors, or for a period of two years. This is a worrying outcome, because it means that the Congress has effectively yielded responsibility for managing these emissions to an approach that nearly everyone, including this administration's EPA Administrator, previously saw as much less desirable, for good reasons. It will impose another layer of intrusive regulations on US industry and businesses, even though it's not clear that it will achieve much in terms of reducing US greenhouse gas emissions, let alone reducing the pace of global warming.

It's worth recalling how we got to this point. A long succession of cap and trade bills, several with bi-partisan sponsorship, ultimately failed to attract enough support to become law. The most recent such legislation, the egregious Waxman-Markey bill, may have looked more like a pork-barrel bonanza than a serious attempt to get our emissions under control, but even it was based on the principle of putting a price on emissions, and harnessing the power of the market and innovation to reduce emissions at a lower cost than through classic tailpipe and smokestack regulations. The former strategy takes advantage of the fact that greenhouse gases behave very differently than the substances associated with smog and other lung-irritating air pollution. Unfortunately, the way that EPA is approaching GHGs ignores that opportunity.

With essentially no adverse local effects, it makes sense to deal with GHGs as flexibly as possible. I can think of several adjectives to describe the path on which the EPA has embarked, but flexible isn't one of them. I suspect that many of the states whose Clean Air Act implementation plans were entirely satisfactory for their originally intended purposes but now find themselves out of compliance would agree. It's ironic that during the debate over Waxman-Markey, EPA regulation was held up as the dreaded alternative to enacting a climate bill, yet now we see a majority of the Senate treating it as something worth defending.

The net result of this week's votes is a House bill that will likely be dead on arrival in the Senate, where the leadership has demonstrated sufficient support for the EPA greenhouse gas regulations that went into effect at the beginning of this year to sustain a Presidential veto of any similar measure that might squeak past the Senate later. At the same time, 17 Democratic Senators voted for some degree of constraint on EPA's powers regarding GHGs. Even if many of those individual votes were focused on blue-state or swing-state electorates going into next year's election, that at least suggests that a bi-partisan majority of Congress does not view EPA regulation as the best strategy for reducing emissions, particularly in a weak economy. And that majority could expand next year. For those of us who are concerned about climate change but also worried that EPA's command-and-control approach to emissions will cost the US economy far more than the modest emissions reductions this will yield are worth, that provides a ray of hope that the current EPA regulations aren't the last word on the subject.

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