Avoiding a trap on climate change

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

EVER SINCE his inauguration a year ago, President Obama has tried to motivate Congress with a strong ultimatum: Pass climate-change legislation, or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will use its authority under the Clean Air Act to curb carbon emissions without your input.

Instead of accepting this as a prod toward useful action, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) apparently wants to disarm the administration. This week she is set to offer a measure, perhaps as an amendment to a bill raising the federal debt ceiling, that would, one way or another, strip the EPA of its power to regulate carbon emissions as pollutants, perhaps for a year, perhaps forever. We aren't fans of the EPA-only route. The country would be better off if Congress established market-based, economy-wide emissions curbs. But hobbling the agency isn't the right course, either.

If Congress fails to act, carefully administered EPA regulation of carbon emissions could ensure that America makes some real reductions, if not necessarily in an optimally efficient manner. If Congress passes climate legislation, the EPA's role, if any, could be tailored to work with a legislated emissions-reduction regime. So removing the EPA's authority now is at least premature. The correct response to the prospect of large-scale EPA regulation is not to waste lawmakers' energy in a probably futile attempt to weaken the agency. Instead, the Senate should provide a better alternative.

That effort is already fraught. The best policies -- a simple carbon tax or cap-and-trade scheme -- aren't gaining steam. Instead, the House passed a leviathan bill, and the Senate is stalled. Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) indicated last week that he fears Ms. Murkowski's measure will diminish chances of producing a bipartisan climate-change bill. Ms. Murkowski would do better by helping end the Senate's paralysis than by seeking to condemn the rest of government to the same inaction.

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