The Environmental Protection Agency scored a victory for jobs, the environment and the nation's public health by announcing a schedule to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and oil refineries. The move was late in coming for some of the world's major polluters, and the details have yet to be fleshed out. But the measure should provide a pathway for American business to operate more responsibly and to create entire new industries. Cleaner air would particularly benefit children, seniors and taxpayers in Florida, where asthma and other respiratory problems pose serious health and financial concerns.
The agency announced last month it would propose new pollution performance standards for new and remodeled fossil fuel-fired power plants by July, with final regulations by May 2012. New rules for oil refineries would be proposed by December 2011, with final regulations by November 2012. These two industrial sources account for 40 percent of greenhouse gas pollution in the United States, and by singling them out, the agency sends a message that it is serious about controlling carbon dioxide emissions and moving the nation away from old, dirty coal-fired power plants.
The announcement was a strong opening salvo coming only weeks before Republicans took control of the House. The EPA needs to make the rules tough enough to reduce carbon and the use of coal in a measurable way. The agency is right to recognize the coming political debate; in a press release, it said the lag time in the rulemaking process would give the government, industry and the states the chance to hold "listening sessions" and reach consensus on "cost-effective" cleanup measures. Republicans need to drop the loaded charge that the Obama administration is looking to revive the cap-and-trade proposal limiting carbon that passed the House but died in the Senate. The EPA has a responsibility to enforce pollution standards under the Clean Air Act even in the absence of a national energy policy.
If anything, the EPA signaled its willingness to be flexible. It called attention to the prospect for "innovative approaches that take into account cost, health and environmental impacts and energy requirements." The agency said it wants any new rules to complement evolving pollution-control technologies. The announcement should give industry a degree of regulatory certainty, and it should sow the seeds for capital investment in new clean-energy technologies. Industry players who supported a comprehensive energy bill on the basis of these same benefits should rally again behind a move that is good for jobs, the cities and the nation's environment.
The stakes are high for Florida. The burning of fossil fuels is the dominant factor in the trend of greenhouse gas emissions, which increased at a greater rate in Florida from 1990 to 2007 than the national average. And dirty air especially endangers those suffering from asthma and other chronic pulmonary diseases. The state reported in 2009 that 1.5 million children and adults in Florida lived with the disease. It also crafted a plan to address asthma through 2014, noting that children in Florida suffered at greater rates than the national average. In the first comprehensive study of its kind, "The Burden of Asthma in Florida," the state estimated in 2009 that the annual costs of treating asthma in Florida topped $570 million. Power plants and other industrial users that pollute the public's air cannot walk away from their responsibilities. The EPA needs to cut emissions in a meaningful way and in a timely manner.