EPA to Regulate Greenhouse Gases in Big Boost for Copenhagen

EPA Adminstrator Lisa Jackson and President Obama

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson announced today that EPA will regulate greenhouse gases as a dangerous pollutant, which comes as a big boost to perceived US-commitment to the kick-off of Copenhagen COP 15 climate talks.

Because the Senate was not able to pass the greenhouse gas cap-and-trade regulations in time for Copenhagen, the Obama Administration has turned to Plan B to regulate greenhouse gas emissions–having the EPA regulate greenhouse gases from major industrial sources and from tailpipes.

Greenhouse gas emission regulations are expected to be finalized by the EPA in March and would begin to go into effect by May.

Cities and local government agencies will need to closely monitor the new federal EPA development as it will have large impacts on municipal greenhouse gas sources such as power plants, transportation fleets and other large emission sources. Until now, the federal EPA only has provided guidelines and third-party resources to local governments on such issues as greenhouse gas inventories.  

While the Senate still has a few months by which to pass cap and trade before its spring sessions ends in March, the EPA regulatory approach versus Congressional legislation is likely to increase regulatory costs and be “messy,” according to Tim Newell, senior adviser at private equity firm US Renewables.

“Having regulations by EPA (versus Congressionally approved cap and trade) raises the costs of high-carbon fuels and power production,” said Newell.

Other non-partisan sources such as the Congressional Quarterly claim that EPA regulation of greenhouse gases under The Clean Air Act will be a “blunt instrument” that will cause court challenges and additional red tape for industry, as well as state and local government.

The move by the EPA might also force the Senate to pass cap-and-trade regulations as a less-onerous form of greenhouse gas compliance.

Most importantly, the EPA’s move today demonstrates that the US “has teeth” to regulate greenhouse gases, which is more likely to tip Copenhagen toward a successful binding agreement including the US and other nations.

Passage of a successful treaty in Copenhagen would then put more even pressure on the Senate to take action, which presents a situation where the nation might have to comply with both Congressional cap-and-trade and EPA Clean Air Act greenhouse gas regulations. 

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.