EPA left to pick up climate change where Congress dropped the debate

By David A. Fahrenthold and Juliet Eilperin
Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Obama administration told Congress to find a way to regulate greenhouse gases -- or else.

Last month, Congress refused: Democratic leaders in the Senate declined to take up climate legislation before their August break, which means it looks effectively dead for this session.

Now the White House is stuck with "or else."

The Environmental Protection Agency will soon begin regulating greenhouse gases factory by factory, power plant by power plant. That could be unwieldy, expensive and unpopular -- even President Obama has said it's not his preferred solution.

But for now, it's his only option.

The next few months could bring a climax to the long-running debate over how to combat climate change, with the EPA trying to implement its rules and industry groups and opponents in Congress seeking to block it with lawsuits or legislation.

The administration will cite a mandate from the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2007 that greenhouse gases could be regulated like other air pollutants. But opponents will say it has chosen an approach that stretches the law and could impose serious economic costs.

The result of their fight could be the first limits on greenhouse gases from American smokestacks -- or a significant defeat for the White House and environmental groups.

The administration "wanted to be able to hold out the threat of clean-air regulation [by the EPA], as a way to . . . try to get people to the table," said Jeffrey R. Holmstead, an EPA official under the Bush administration, who now works for the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani. "They're now faced with the kind of unenviable task of trying to make it work."

Great hopes dashed

To environmentalists, Obama's election in 2008 brought the hope that legislation to cut greenhouse gases was finally at hand. They had a president who had campaigned on the issue, a Democratic Congress and a deadline to motivate them both. In December 2009, world leaders would gather in Copenhagen to hammer out a new climate treaty.

There was an early, encouraging sign: The administration worked out a deal with the car industry to set limits on auto emissions. But since then, little has worked out as environmental groups had hoped.

Last summer, the House of Representatives passed a "cap and trade" bill -- cutting emissions, and allowing businesses to buy and sell allowances to pollute. But the Copenhagen conference fizzled into a multilingual blame game. And the Senate refused to follow the House example: Senators said they worried that new pollution rules would cut jobs and raise energy prices.

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