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.
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EPA is preparing to regulate emissions in Congress's stead
Earlier this year, the Obama administration took the first step toward complying with the Supreme Court's 2007 ruling by requiring automakers to increase the fuel economy -- and therefore decrease the carbon emissions -- of new cars and trucks by 2016. The ailing automakers supported the accord.
Monday's finding is another step toward compliance. "There are no more excuses for delay," Jackson said. "This administration will not ignore science and the law any longer."
Supporters of regulation note that the Clean Air Act has led to some of the great U.S. environmental success stories, producing significant drops in smog and soot. But greenhouse gases could prove far more difficult to fight. They don't just come from smokestacks, but from millions of auto tailpipes, airplanes, ships, home furnaces and even the digestive tracts of cattle. And there is no simple piece of hardware that emitters can buy to keep the gases out of the air.
"There's no catalytic converter. There's no scrubber. There's nothing," said Jeffrey R. Holmstead, who headed the EPA's air-pollution programs during the Bush administration and now works with the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani. Instead, solutions probably would include switching the fuels burned in power plants and, in the future, using machinery to capture emissions and store them underground.
The Clean Air Act set a low threshold for regulation that opponents argue would require rules for everything from laundries to office buildings, from cow farms to coal plants. But the EPA said it would impose new rules only on large factories, refineries, power plants and other facilities emitting more than 25,000 tons a year of carbon dioxide.
When these plants upgrade their facilities, or when new ones like them are built, they would be required to install the "best available control technology" for limiting greenhouse-gas emissions, while "taking into account costs." In October, the EPA said there were 13,661 facilities that size; it estimated that every year 128 new facilities and 273 existing facilities seeking modifications would require new permits.
"What EPA can require is controls that are technically feasible and cost-effective," said David Donziger, policy director of the climate center at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "With CO2 there is the chance to save money, which is rarer for other pollutants."
Together, these large sources account for about half of all U.S. emissions, the EPA said. But it's still unclear what, exactly, the "best available" technology should be. Jackson said the EPA is still working on that.
Although many business leaders have urged Congress to adopt climate legislation, some remain staunchly opposed. Those groups also condemned the EPA for moving forward with regulations.
"This action poses a threat to every American family and business if it leads to regulation of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. Such regulation would be intrusive, inefficient and excessively costly," said Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, whose members have big oil refineries and petrochemical plants. "It is a decision that is clearly politically motivated to coincide with the start of the Copenhagen climate summit."
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.