On February 19th, the House approved spending legislation that, if also passed in the Senate, would mean major cuts to climate and environmental initiatives. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is hit hard, with cuts targeting its general budget, and specifically addressing its ability to regulate mercury and other toxic pollutants, to set new health standards limiting particulate pollution, and even to simply collect data on the sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (Grist) (NRDC). In addition, the legislation aims to effectively block greenhouse gas regulation by preventing the EPA from spending any money on it.
The 2007 Massachusetts et al vs. Environmental Protection Agency Supreme Court ruling confirmed the authority of the EPA to regulate these emissions by finding that CO2 and other greenhouse gases fall under the Clean Air Act’s definition of pollutants. The EPA argued that even if granted this authority, regulating emissions would be politically “unwise” due to possible conflicts with other national and international climate policy efforts.
The Court ruled that the Clean Air Act dictates that the decision to regulate (or not regulate) a pollutant should be based upon the scientific judgment of whether the air pollutant can “reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare” § 7601 (a)(1). Thus, as the “harms associated with climate change are serious and well recognized,” the decision to regulate GHGs must be based on the scientific assessment of whether GHGs contribute to climate change. As an EPA review supports the link between GHGs and climate change and concludes that these emissions do endanger public health and welfare, the Court ruling supports that the EPA has the duty to regulate these emissions (see here for more on this endangerment finding).
Beyond the funding cuts, several Republican lawmakers have introduced legislation aimed at removing this authority of the EPA to regulate GHG emissions. One of these, a draft bill called the Energy Tax Prevention Act, would nullify the Massachusetts vs. EPA Supreme Court’s decision by repealing the EPA finding that greenhouse gases threaten public health and by amending the Clean Air Act to exempt greenhouse gases from the definition of air pollutants. Representatives Fred Upton (R-MI) and Ed Whitfield (R-KY) introduced this legislation in the House of Representatives, and Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) in the Senate. Some believe that among the proposed legislation aimed at removing the EPA’s GHG regulatory authority, this bill has the highest chance of making it to the Congressional floor for a vote due to Representative Upton’s position as chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Supporters of the Energy Tax Prevention Act argue that the Clean Air Act was not designed to address climate change, and that these efforts are an attempt to impose a “backdoor” cap-and-trade tax after cap-and-trade legislation failed to pass during the last congress. They also argue that such regulations would increase energy prices, thus damaging the ability of American companies to compete in a global market and causing the loss of American jobs.
Those who oppose the bill say it puts the interests of big polluters in front of those of the public. As Franz Matzner, climate and air legislative director at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), states,
“Now we know the upshot of that behind-closed-doors meeting last month between big polluters and the staffs of Rep. Upton and Sen. Inhofe: A proposal that puts polluters’ profits ahead of our health.’’
The health effects cited include death, illness, and injury due to more extreme heat waves, more intense smog, the spread of infectious diseases, and stronger storms, floods, and hurricanes, as documented by the EPA.
Less discussed, but at the crux of the issue, is the belief in a human role in climate change. The Energy Tax Prevention Act does not merely delay regulation. It instead takes the potentially permanent steps of repealing the finding that greenhouse gases represent a threat to public health and amending the Clean Air Act so that greenhouse gases are not considered pollutants. While those supporting postponement often argue that it is necessary to protect the currently weakened economy, these more fundamental changes reveal a questioning of the link between GHGs and climate as well as the effects of climate change.
Beyond the obvious implications this bill would have for the ability of the US to enforce cuts in greenhouse gases emissions at the national level, and the attendant investment uncertainty it would cause, the bill may also have unintended political consequences, with some arguing that its supporters may be “overreaching” on environmental issues.
Multiple opinion polls demonstrate that the majority of the public, including the majority of Republicans, do not support restrictions on the EPA. An NRDC nationwide survey conducted by Opinion Research Corp. found that three out of four of those surveyed, including 61% of Republicans, believed that “Congress should let the EPA do its job.” Another nationwide survey conducted by the American Lung Association found that 69% believe that EPA scientists, rather than Congress, should set pollution standards and that 77% support stricter limits on carbon dioxide specifically. A Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey, commissioned by NRDC, found that 62% of Congressman Upton’s own constituents oppose the Energy Tax Prevention Act.
Yet as some moderate Democrats are joining Republicans in expressing concern and possible hesitation regarding the specifics of GHG regulation implementation, the bill’s prospects may be better than these public opinion polls would imply.