Climate Change Policies Face Challenges in Congress

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During his second inaugural address on Jan. 21, President Obama announced that the United States will respond to the growing threat of climate change. Environmental advocates applaud the president for addressing this generation-defining problem and hope he will elaborate on his strategy for tackling climate change during tonight's State of the Union address, but they recognize that the administration will face serious challenges in moving crucial policies forward.

New Report Identifies Necessary Steps for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

According to a new report released by the World Resource Institute last week, the U.S. will not be able to achieve a 17 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, a pledge the U.S. made at the 2009 Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen, Denmark, unless it makes current emissions standards stricter. The report identifies several legal tools already available to federal and state governments to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It recommends the administration take four key steps to make good on its greenhouse gas reduction commitments.

First, EPA should use its authority under the Clean Air Act to set stricter emissions limits for power plants, which contribute more to the level of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States than any other sector. EPA can do so by finalizing its proposed rule on greenhouse gas emissions limits for new and modified power plants and issuing similar standards for existing power plants. States can assist EPA’s efforts by promoting the use of alternative, renewable energy and working to reduce demand for electricity.

Second, EPA and states can reduce methane emissions from natural gas systems by requiring better controls on leaks from natural gas operations and from abandoned wells. Third, EPA should use its authority under the Clean Air Act to begin phasing out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), compounds used for air conditioning and refrigeration that emit greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change. Fourth, EPA and the states should set new standards to improve energy efficiency across the residential, commercial, and industrial sectors.

EPA plans to finalize emissions limits for new power plants this spring but has not yet proposed similar limits for existing plants or for methane emissions from drilling operations.

Greenhouse Gas Reductions Threatened by Rulemaking Roadblocks

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. About two years later, the agency issued an “endangerment finding,” concluding that greenhouse gases endanger public health and the environment and should be regulated. So far, EPA has used this authority to set vehicle emissions standards and to propose first-time greenhouse gas emission standards for new electric power plants. EPA’s endangerment finding was upheld by a federal appeals court, but many House majority members remain focused on undermining agency science and blocking new rules.

Although EPA already has the legislative authority it needs to make significant progress in greenhouse gas reductions, Congress has tried to obstruct its efforts through investigations, appropriations restrictions, and other efforts. For example, the House Energy and Commerce Committee has announced plans to investigate EPA’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, including the scientific basis for the agency’s decisions.

Last year, proposed greenhouse gas regulations were a frequent target of the Energy and Power Subcommittee. Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY), the subcommittee chairman, convened a number of hearings to criticize what he referred to as "EPA’s war on coal." More recently, Whitfield cautioned that he would take the same approach to new rules limiting greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. "We're going to be very aggressive in letting them know that if they try to start doing this with existing plants, they're going to have a real battle on their hands," he said. Congress also targeted agencies’ authority to regulate greenhouse gases and fund renewable energy projects last year using anti-environmental bills and appropriations riders. Members will likely employ these tactics again to thwart new efforts to address climate change.

In addition to congressional interference, agencies will face a number of other obstacles in combating climate change. Rulemaking delays, special interest influence, and legal challenges to agency actions could stall or quash new regulations before they become effective. Despite the social and environmental costs of delay, it often takes agencies years to develop and issue new rules, which are then subjected to extensive delays while under review at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). Special interests often use this time to weaken new rules. Even after agency actions make it through this arduous process, they can get tied up in lengthy and costly court cases before becoming effective.

The Administration’s Next Move

Federal agencies are beginning to recognize the importance of combating and adapting to climate change. The EPA recently invited public comment on its draft adaptation plan, which identifies actions the agency will take to respond to the challenges that a changing climate poses to fulfilling its mission and protecting human health and the environment. The Department of the Interior released a similar plan last week.

As the WRI report illustrates, the U.S. could meet near-term reduction goals using existing legal authority. According to some reports, President Obama’s State of the Union address will reveal a new strategy to use that authority to curb greenhouse gas emissions from some of the largest sources. However, new emissions standards will face staunch opposition from some industry sectors.

It appears the administration is willing to make a strong commitment. The question now is, will Congress find a way to work with the president, or will it stand in the way of achieving meaningful greenhouse gas reductions?

Image by NASA Goddard Photo and Video, used under a Creative Commons license.

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