EPA now tasked to regulate greenhouse gases

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post / August 8, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The Obama administration told Congress to find a way to regulate greenhouse gases — or else.

Last month, Congress refused: Democratic leaders in the Senate declined to take up climate legislation before their August break, which means it looks effectively dead for this session.

Now the White House is stuck with “or else.’’

The Environmental Protection Agency will soon begin regulating greenhouse gases factory by factory, power plant by power plant.

That could be unwieldy, expensive, and unpopular — even President Obama has said it is not his preferred solution. But for now, it is his only option.

The next few months could bring a climax to the long-running debate over how to combat climate change, with the EPA trying to implement its rules and industry groups and opponents in Congress seeking to block it with lawsuits or legislation.

The result of their fight could be the first limits on greenhouse gases from American smokestacks — or a significant defeat for the White House and environmental groups.

To environmentalists, Obama’s election in 2008 brought the hope that legislation to cut greenhouse gases was finally at hand. They had a president who had campaigned on the issue, a Democratic Congress, and a deadline to motivate them both. In December 2009, world leaders would gather in Copenhagen to hammer out a new climate treaty.

There was an early, encouraging sign: The administration worked out a deal with the car industry to set limits on auto emissions. But since then, little has worked out as environmental groups had hoped.

Last summer, the House of Representatives passed a “cap and trade’’ bill — cutting emissions, and allowing businesses to buy and sell allowances to pollute. But the Copenhagen conference fizzled into a multilingual blame game. And the Senate refused to follow the House example: Senators said they worried that new pollution rules would cut jobs and raise energy prices.

Senators have focused on a more modest bill that aims to eliminate the $75 million cap on the liabilities of a company responsible for an oil spill and create incentives for the development of natural-gas vehicles.

“Congress, particularly the Senate, has dropped the ball and kicked it out of bounds,’’ said Frank O’Donnell, of Clean Air Watch.

Starting in January, under EPA rules new permits will require the largest factories and power plants to show they have installed the “best available’’ technology to curb emissions.

That might mean upgrades to make plants burn fuel more efficiently or to switch from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas.

These are “pretty modest steps, and it’s not much compared to what legislation was set out to accomplish,’’ said Joshua Freed, who directs the clean energy program at Third Way, a centrist think tank.

This is where the fight begins.

Some industry groups say that if the EPA requires aggressive cuts, the result could be crushing costs for businesses. So even before it begins, the EPA effort is the subject of lawsuits, from plaintiffs questioning both its science and legal underpinnings.

In Congress, some senators have worked to stop the EPA in its tracks. In June, a resolution from Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, narrowly failed. A bill from Senator John Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, to suspend the effort for two years, awaits a vote.

A White House spokesman said that Obama would veto Rockefeller’s measure if it passed. But more attempts could be made.