The Obama administration is laying the foundation — quite literally — for the battles it faces this year on climate change.
On Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled the first-ever searchable database of greenhouse-gas emissions from most major sectors of the economy. The database, mandated by Congress in 2008 through an appropriations bill, doesn’t require any new regulations but it is user-friendly: Releases of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are quantified for individual facilities as well as for geographic areas. EPA hopes the database will add to public pressure for cuts in emissions that most scientists agree contribute to climate change.
“We’re hopeful that the information will be a strong driver of greenhouse-gas reduction,” said Gina McCarthy, EPA's assistant administrator for air and radiation, during a conference call on Wednesday.
The database gives the public — and environmental activists — a tool to use ahead of what will be a critical year for EPA’s efforts to address climate change. In the next few months, the agency is expected to propose the first greenhouse-gas rules for power plants and, simultaneously, defend in a federal court its authority to regulate those emissions. A decision on that case is expected in early summer — right in the home stretch of the presidential election.
McCarthy said she hopes the database of greenhouse gases influences public opinion the same way the air-toxics inventory of traditional pollutants like mercury did. EPA established that inventory 25 years ago.
“It had a tremendous impact in terms of providing opportunities for reduction and we’re really hoping this information will do the same,” McCarthy said.
Not everyone is convinced of that comparison.
“The major difference between this and air toxics is that there is no local effect with climate change, if there is any effect at all,” said Howard Feldman, regulatory and scientific affairs director at the American Petroleum Institute. That distinction translates into politics: Obama is campaigning on the promise to protect children from mercury. His promises from 2008 to combat climate change have gone silent.
Last month EPA finalized a regulation for power plants that slashes the very same air toxic pollution the agency started tracking 25 years ago. That rule was required in the Clean Air Act amendments that passed in 1990. Because of legal and administrative delays, it wasn’t implemented until now.
Will it take another two decades to implement rules controlling climate-change pollution? The court decision expected this summer and EPA’s commitment to its greenhouse-gas rules will be key indicators.
A Supreme Court decision in 2007 triggered the process by which EPA is now mandated to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from all sectors of the economy. It has already started addressing such emissions from the transportation sector — which accounts for about 30 percent of the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions — through the administration’s tougher fuel-economy standards.
EPA is bound by court settlements with environmental groups to propose climate-change regulations for power plants and oil and gas refineries this year, creating something of a political dilemma for the Obama administration. Coal-fired power plants account for about 40 percent of the nation's greenhouse gases, but coal is also the most prevalent and cheapest form of power. It provides about 45 percent of the nation’s electricity.
McCarthy said on Wednesday that the EPA hopes to announce the greenhouse-gas rule for new power plants by the end of this month. Since this rule will not apply to existing power plants, its impact on the utility industry — and climate-change pollution — will be much less than the rule addressing existing sources. Politically though, the rule will likely face attacks from Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail as if it was regulating all power plants operating now.
McCarthy indicated EPA is in no hurry to get the rule out, noting that no new power plants are in the works right now.
“We don’t see anything ready for permitting that the [rule] would impact,” McCarthy said. “So I don’t want people to be anxious.… We indicated an end-of-January timeline and we are looking forward to trying to adhere to that.”
A timetable for announcing a rule controlling climate-change pollution from existing power plants seems to be even less certain. “We have not prepared any proposal for existing facilities at this point,” McCarthy said. EPA has also been silent on when it expects to announce its rule to control carbon emissions from refineries.
Underlying all of these rules is EPA’s Supreme Court-mandated ability to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. That authority is being challenged in court by industry groups, utilities, and states. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is hearing the case, which is actually a suite of related lawsuits, at the end of February.
“The court decisions are going to come right in the middle of election season,” said GOP political strategist Mike McKenna, who is an expert on energy and is close with congressional leadership. “The timing couldn’t possibly be worse for the administration.”
For his part, Obama seems to be making sure he doesn’t talk about his agency’s plans to control climate change. He visited EPA headquarters on Tuesday to thank its employees for all their hard work in the past year. He made only one passing mention of climate change in reference to his administration’s fuel-economy standards. Environmentalists shrugged off the fact that Obama didn’t mention EPA’s planned greenhouse-gas rules. They praised him for visiting the agency and were happy he mentioned climate change at all.
Concluding his brief remarks to EPA, Obama said: “I want you to know that you’ve got a president who is grateful for your work and will stand with you every inch of the way as you carry out your mission to make sure that we’ve got a cleaner world.”
Time will tell whether that holds true for EPA’s climate-change rules.