EPA: Greenhouse Gases Threaten Health

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The Environmental Protection Agency announced Monday that greenhouse gas pollution is a threat to human health. That finding paves the way for the agency to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from factories, power plants and cars under the Clean Air Act if Congress doesn't pass legislation to cut emissions.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The largest climate change conference in history is now under way. Delegates from around the world are gathering at a United Nations meeting in Copenhagen to try to work out a deal to reduce carbon emissions. We'll have more on the conference in a few minutes. First, here in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency took steps today towards regulating greenhouse gases.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: EPA administrator Lisa Jackson formally declared that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare. She cited a long list of global warming's impacts.

Ms. LISA JACKSON (Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency): The droughts, the flooding, the changes in diseases, the changes in migratory habits, the changes in our water cycle and climate...

SHOGREN: Jackson was responding to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that said the Clean Air Act applies to climate change and not just other types of air pollution. This finding gives Jackson the authority to go ahead with proposed regulations to reduce greenhouse gases from new cars and from power plants and factories. Under Obama administration proposals, by 2016 new cars would have to go an average of 35 miles on a gallon of gasoline. And starting next spring, factories and power plants could be required to start using new technologies to cut greenhouse gas pollution when they expand or construct new facilities.

Mr. JEFF HOLMSTEAD (Former Head, Air Pollution Program, EPA): I don't think there's anyone in the business community that wants EPA to regulate.

SHOGREN: That's Jeff Holmstead. He headed EPA's air pollution programs under President Bush. Now he represents power companies, manufacturing firms and other businesses as a lawyer and lobbyist. He says EPA's new regulations will spark lots of lawsuits and create delays for new power plants and other projects.

Mr. HOLMSTEAD: It's the uncertainty of all of this and the potential slowdown of any kind of economic development that I think is the biggest worry, certainly for my clients.

SHOGREN: But environmental activists say the EPA is legally bound to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Vickie Patton is a lawyer with the Environmental Defense Fund.

Ms. VICKIE PATTON (Lawyer, Environmental Defense Fund): It would be irresponsible for policymakers to wait until harm happens before they step in and protect public health.

SHOGREN: Professor Michael Gerrard is the director for climate change law at Columbia University Law School. He says there's no doubt that EPA regulation will inflict pain on some industries.

Professor MICHAEL GERRARD (Climate Change Law, Columbia University Law School): This would be a long, detailed, cumbersome process, but it would ultimately be effective in reducing emissions from those sources.

SHOGREN: But he says it would not be as effective as bills currently being considered by Congress. The House has already passed climate change legislation, but a similar bill is stalled in the Senate. And members have been using the threat of EPA regulation to prod their reluctant colleagues into supporting those bills. EPA's Jackson says that she and President Obama agree that the best way to cut greenhouse gas emissions is for Congress to pass economy-wide global warming legislation. But she stresses that she will do what she can with or without Congress.

Ms. JACKSON: I do not believe this is an either/or proposition. I actually see this as a both/and.

SHOGREN: Jackson said she hopes her announcement will send a message to international negotiators in Copenhagen, that the United States is committed to facing the challenge of global warming.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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