2011: Year of the EPA?

Friday, December 31, 2010; A18

ENVIRONMENTALISTS have had a rough year, but over the past week the Environmental Protection Agency and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals gave them some hope. On Dec. 23 the agency announced a schedule for setting greenhouse gas standards for power plants and oil refineries over the next two years, and on Wednesday the court refused to halt the implementation of the EPA's carbon-cutting program pending legal challenge.

Congress hasn't passed a sensible, comprehensive energy policy. EPA regulation of greenhouse gases is one way the government can cut emissions now, using current law. Over the next year, the president should defend his administration's authority to do so.

With the Supreme Court's blessing, the EPA has deemed greenhouse emissions threats to public health under the Clean Air Act. That means the agency can require emitters to arrest those gases' release in various ways. What the EPA will force plant operators to do, though, isn't yet clear. The guidance it produced for state regulators last month stresses the value of efficiency improvements, such as turbines that convert more of the energy released from burning fossil fuels into usable electricity.

Agency officials insist that requirements will be "cost-effective" and "common-sense." In a legally distinct but nonetheless related effort, the EPA is also preparing to clamp down on other nasty things that coal-fired power plants spew into the air, such as mercury, which would require other emissions control technologies.

Critics such as Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the incoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, insist that both regulatory avenues will seriously harm the economy. They are exaggerating, but it's true that EPA regulation absent some overarching congressional carbon policy isn't ideal. Because such a rule raises no revenue, it can't compensate those consumers who have to pay more for their energy. Because it depends on the policy preferences of the president, new administrations might move to gut the policies, leading to the sort of regulatory uncertainty that is punishing to business. Because it relies on federal mandate, it's not likely to put America on the cheapest path to sustainable energy production even if it became America's primary carbon-reducing program.

But Mr. Upton's GOP colleagues killed the efficient solution: putting a price on carbon and unleashing market forces in the fight against climate change. And carbon dioxide continues to accumulate in the atmosphere. If critics want to be helpful, they should propose a realistic emissions-reduction scheme instead of simply picking on the EPA.

Moreover, EPA regulation done carefully isn't the worst of carbon-cutting policies. The slow death of the traditional coal plant - one likely outcome of the EPA's efforts - would be welcome, even if it were just replaced with the traditional natural gas plant, which produces roughly half the carbon emissions. The EPA has also repeatedly signaled that it wants to restrain the ambition of its carbon regulation, writing regulations that target only the largest sources of emissions.

In the long term, this attenuated sort of EPA regulation alone isn't likely to result in the carbon reductions that America needs to participate seriously in the global response to climate change; it might cut emissions by 5 percent of 2005 levels by 2020, not the 17 percent that is Obama's stated policy. Congress will have to act, and sooner is better. In the meantime, modest EPA regulation can achieve some valuable ends and keep pressure on Congress to do more. The president must resist lawmakers' efforts to limit the EPA's power.

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