Congress should respond to EPA prod and regulate emissions

Thursday, December 10, 2009

AT THE COPENHAGEN climate conference on Wednesday, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson declared 2009 to be when the U.S. government finally began to seriously address greenhouse gas emissions. The reason? Her formal finding on Monday that carbon emissions pose a danger to the health and welfare of Americans, a step toward restricting the sources that produce them. Democrats and environmental groups immediately lauded the decision, while Republicans and business groups condemned it, arguing that it would lead to complicated, productivity-killing regulation.

Critics are correct to point out that EPA regulation under the Clean Air Act isn't the most efficient way to clamp down on carbon emissions, absent broader congressional action. EPA officials would regulate source by source, with lawsuits slowing the process and technological hurdles likely constraining action -- or making it very expensive. But that only strengthens the argument for a sensible, overarching, market-based carbon tax or cap-and-trade scheme -- which is probably the most efficient way to reduce greenhouse emissions. Putting a gradually increasing price on carbon would spur the market to determine the least costly way to reduce America's carbon emissions, instead of allowing the EPA to regulate alone and piecemeal or Congress to pick winners and losers according to lawmakers' political calculations. Republicans, however, have generally opposed these market-based ideas, too.

Monday's announcement was most encouraging for two reasons. First, it lends plausibility to the preliminary emissions-reduction commitment that President Obama announced before the Copenhagen climate conference, a figure that the Senate has not endorsed. Second, it pressures lawmakers to offer a better alternative to EPA regulation alone. In part because the GOP has not embraced a sensible, market-based approach, the House passed a huge and flawed climate bill over the summer. The Senate is lost in the health-care debate, its members don't seem particularly eager to take up climate change when health care is done, and its version of the legislation isn't shaping up to be much better than the House's. The threat of the EPA regulating in Congress's stead should persuade lawmakers to look at climate-change afresh.

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