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An earlier version of this article misstated the percentage of U.S. emissions that come from facilities that produce 250,000 tons or more of carbon dioxide or its equivalent each year. This version has been corrected.

EPA is preparing to regulate emissions in Congress's stead

A woman studies a display at the international climate conference in Copenhagen, which was opening as the EPA made its announcement.
A woman studies a display at the international climate conference in Copenhagen, which was opening as the EPA made its announcement. (Anja Niedringhaus/associated Press)

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By Steven Mufson and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Obama administration moved closer Monday to issuing regulations on greenhouse gases, a step that would enable it to limit emissions across the economy even if Congress does not pass climate legislation.

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The move, which coincided with the first day of the international climate summit in Copenhagen, seemed timed to reassure delegates there that the United States is committed to reducing its emissions even if domestic legislation remains bogged down. But it provoked condemnation from key Republicans and from U.S. business groups, which vowed to tie up any regulations in litigation.

In Monday's much-anticipated announcement, the Environmental Protection Agency said that six gases, including carbon dioxide and methane, pose a danger to the environment and the health of Americans and that the agency would start drawing up regulations to reduce those emissions.

"These are reasonable, common-sense steps," EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said, adding that they would protect the environment "without placing an undue burden on the businesses that make up the better part of our economy." At the same time, however, EPA regulation is no one's preferred outcome -- not even the EPA's. Jackson said her agency and other administration officials would still prefer if Congress acted before they did.

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), a leading proponent of a Senate climate bill, issued a statement after the EPA's announcement saying, "The message to Congress is crystal clear: Get moving."

The EPA's "endangerment finding" -- a key bureaucratic step in the regulatory process -- was seen as a message to Congress and Copenhagen, but it was also a belated response to an order from the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in April 2007 that carbon dioxide should be considered a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. As a result, the court said, the EPA had not only the power but the obligation to regulate the gas. (In that case, Massachusetts v. EPA, the Bush administration was fighting against regulating carbon dioxide from vehicle tailpipes.)

Michael Morris, chief executive of American Electric Power, a utility that is the nation's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, said Monday that "we have been a proponent . . . to a congressional approach to this undertaking. This is the most awkward way we could go about it." The EPA had to comply with direction from the courts, Morris said, but "there are better approaches, more cost-effective approaches and more productive approaches."

It remains unclear whether the EPA's regulatory cudgel will spur Congress to take faster action on the climate legislation that is now mired in the Senate or whether it will provoke a backlash.

"The stick approach isn't going to work. In fact, Congress may retaliate," said Mark Helmke, a senior adviser to Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.). "They could stop the funding, and they could change the law."

Anticipating EPA action, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) tried unsuccessfully in September to prevent the agency from spending money to regulate stationary sources of greenhouse gases, such as power plants or factories, for one year. Murkowski, the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement Monday that the endangerment finding is "a blunt instrument that will severely hamper our attempts to bolster the economy and get Americans back to work."

Some senators who environmental groups hope might vote for a climate bill also said they were unhappy. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) called the move "regrettable." And Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in a statement that she is concerned that the move "will create burdens on American industry without providing any significant environmental benefits."

"I strongly urge EPA to wait for Congress to find a solution," Lincoln said.


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