Climate change debate treacherous for all sides
Controversial EPA regulations go in effect today
WASHINGTON — With the federal government set to regulate climate-altering gases from factories and power plants for the first time, President Obama’s administration and the new Congress are headed for a clash that carries substantial risks for both sides.
While only the first phase of regulation takes effect today, the administration is on notice that if it moves too far and too fast in trying to curtail the ubiquitous gases that are heating the planet, it risks a congressional backlash that could set back the effort for years.
But the Republicans in Congress, emboldened by gains in the midterm elections, could also stumble by moving too aggressively to handcuff the Environmental Protection Agency, provoking a popular outcry that they are endangering public health in the service of their well-heeled patrons in industry.
“These are hand grenades, and the pins have been pulled,’’ said William K. Reilly, administrator of the environmental agency under the first President Bush.
He said that the agency was wedged between a hostile Congress and the mandates of the law, with little room to maneuver. But he also said that anti-EPA zealots in Congress should realize that the agency was acting on laws that Congress itself passed, many of them by overwhelming bipartisan margins.
As a candidate, Obama vowed he would put the United States on a path to addressing climate change by reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas pollutants. He offered Congress wide latitude to pass climate change legislation but always held in reserve the threat of EPA regulation if it failed to act. The deeply polarized Senate’s refusal to enact climate change law essentially called his bluff.
With Obama’s hand forced by the mandates of the Clean Air Act and a 2007 Supreme Court decision, the EPA will impose the first regulation of major stationary sources of greenhouse gases starting today.
For the moment, administration officials are treading lightly, fearful of inflaming an already acrimonious debate on the issue and mindful that its stated priorities are job creation and economic recovery. Officials are not seeking a major confrontation over carbon regulation, which presents formidable challenges even in a less stressed economic and political climate.
“If the administration gets it wrong, we’re looking at years of litigation, legislation, and public and business outcry,’’ said a senior administration official who asked not to be identified so as not to provide an easy target for Republicans. “If we get it right, we’re facing the same thing.
“Can we get it right?’’ this official continued. “Or is this just too big a challenge, too complex a legal, scientific, political, and regulatory puzzle?’’
The immediate effect on utilities, refiners, and major manufacturers will be small, with the new rules applying only to those planning to build large facilities or make major modifications to existing plants.
The environmental agency estimates that only 400 such facilities will be affected in each of the first few years of the program. Over the next decade, however, the agency plans to regulate virtually all sources of greenhouse gases, imposing efficiency and emissions requirements on nearly every industry and every corner of the country.
The reaction in Congress and industry has been outsized, with some likening the EPA to terrorists and others vowing to choke off the agency’s financing for all air-quality regulation. A dozen states have filed lawsuits to halt the new greenhouse gas rules, with one, Texas, refusing to comply with any new orders from Washington.
Representative Fred Upton, Republican of Michigan, who is set to become chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he was not convinced greenhouse gases needed to be controlled or that the EPA had the authority to do so.
“This move represents an unconstitutional power grab that will kill millions of jobs — unless Congress steps in,’’ Upton wrote last week in a Wall Street Journal opinion essay.
His coauthor was Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group financed by Koch Industries and other oil companies that has spread skepticism about global warming and supported many of the Tea Party movement candidates who will take seats in the new Congress.