The Environmental Protection Agency's declaration that carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases endanger public health gives the Obama administration a major tool at home and abroad to fight global warming. The so-called "endangerment finding" clears the way for the EPA to finalize the stronger tailpipe emission and fuel economy standards the administration announced earlier this year. It also is a way to prod Congress and the world community to reach meaningful, mandatory limits on the gases responsible for climate change.
The EPA's declaration was an overdue response to a Supreme Court ruling in 2007 that found the agency has authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases. Monday's move does not impose any new requirements, but it sets the stage for the EPA to limit releases of carbon dioxide, methane and other gases that contribute to global warming.
Predictably, business groups and some Republicans decried the move, asserting it would harm consumers and cost jobs and spark a political backlash in Congress. We have heard all this before. Legislation — not regulatory rulemaking — is indeed the best way to change this nation's energy strategy, but the EPA's move should build momentum in the Senate to pass a climate bill. Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have proposed a meaningful starting point that would curb emissions even more than what President Barack Obama has called for and what the House adopted this summer.
The EPA has added a sense of urgency for change in the same way that California and a dozen other states prodded the federal government to get serious about greenhouse emissions. The EPA said the tailpipe and fuel economy standards would save 2 billion barrels of oil and reduce auto emissions by one-fifth by 2030. The agency also intends to extend the emissions limits to large, stationary polluters, such as power plants, refineries and factories. These are real savings. They should not be lost because obstructionists in the Senate want to run out the clock.
Controlling carbon by federal law and not administrative rule would give businesses much more regulatory certainty than perpetual EPA rulemaking. But the EPA ruling gives Obama more ammunition as he travels to Copenhagen this month for global negotiations on capping carbon. China and India moved closer to accepting caps this month only after the United States, the world's largest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases, proposed meaningful targets of its own. This was a sensible and timely warning shot by the EPA.