In a move that could have dramatic implications worldwide, the powerful US Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to regulate the six main greenhouse gases on the basis that they are a danger to public health.

The move was revealed in an EPA statement issued in Washington on Friday night, Australian time:

The proposed finding, which now moves to a public comment period, identified six greenhouse gases that pose a potential threat.

“This finding confirms that greenhouse gas pollution is a serious problem now and for future generations. Fortunately, it follows President Obama’s call for a low carbon economy and strong leadership in Congress on clean energy and climate legislation,” said Administrator Lisa P. Jackson.

“This pollution problem has a solution — one that will create millions of green jobs and end our country’s dependence on foreign oil.

EPA’s proposed endangerment finding is based on rigorous, peer-reviewed scientific analysis of six gases 00 carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride — that have been the subject of intensive analysis by scientists around the world.

The science clearly shows that concentrations of these gases are at unprecedented levels as a result of human emissions, and these high levels are very likely the cause of the increase in average temperatures and other changes in our climate.

The announcement has already started a public brawl between the EPA, the Obama Administration and Democratic members of Congress who claim the EPA’s proposal will harm Congress’ moves to tighten up on climate change and the environment. Business and the Republicans will naturally be upset with outlandish forecasts about cost increases.

Many Democrats want a cap and trade system (such as Congressman Henry Waxman — a powerful and publicity mad Democrat). The move which is being made under the Clean Air Act of 1973, does have the capacity to circumvent Congress and the legion of lobbyists for industry, greens and everyone else with an interest in this very emotive issue.

Congressman Waxman told Bloomberg TV at the weekend that draft legislation being debated this week by a panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee would “supersede” EPA regulation. Waxman is the committee chairman. He says his draft bill would require industrial polluters to get permits for emissions, which then could be bought and sold on a market.

As President Obama has made curbing greenhouse gases a priority, the move can be seen as putting pressure on Congress to come up with legislation.

The President has asked Congress to pass legislation that would cap carbon- dioxide emissions: there’s a monetary lure, Obama has factored in $US650 billion in revenue from a cap-and-trade system from 2012 to 2019.

Bloomberg says the draft legislation referred to by Congressman Waxman would cut greenhouse-gas emissions 20% by 2020. By 2050, emissions would be reduced 83% from 2005 levels under the plan.

The EPA’s rules would not allow that new source of trading revenue and tax income to be developed, unless overridden by the Congress.

Like clean air, the move by the EPA, opens the way for new US regulation of cars, power plants and factories. It also has the potential to reach beyond the borders of the US in that to sell products in the US, foreign companies will have to conform.

The proposed EPA move is the first formal action by the US government toward restricting carbon-dioxide emissions that climate scientists say contribute to global warming.

The EPA has strong legal backing for its move.

It is based on a Supreme Court ruling in April 2007 which said the government could restrict heat-trapping gases under the Clean Air Act if it found them a danger to the public health and welfare, and it ordered the EPA to make a determination.

Former President George Bush’s Administration wouldn’t act, handing the issue over to the Obama Administration with the change of Government.

In its statement the EPA said:

As the proposed endangerment finding states, “In both magnitude and probability, climate change is an enormous problem. The greenhouse gases that are responsible for it endanger public health and welfare within the meaning of the Clean Air Act.”

The scientific analysis also confirms that climate change impacts human health in several ways. Findings from a recent EPA study titled “Assessment of the Impacts of Global Change on Regional US Air Quality: A Synthesis of Climate Change Impacts on Ground-Level Ozone,” for example, suggest that climate change may lead to higher concentrations of ground-level ozone, a harmful pollutant. Additional impacts of climate change include, but are not limited to:

  • increased drought;
  • more heavy downpours and flooding;
  • more frequent and intense heat waves and wildfires;
  • greater sea level rise;
  • more intense storms; and
  • harm to water resources, agriculture, wildlife and ecosystems.

In proposing the finding, Administrator Jackson also took into account the disproportionate impact climate change has on the health of certain segments of the population, such as the poor, the very young, the elderly, those already in poor health, the disabled, those living alone and/or indigenous populations dependent on one or a few resources.

The proposed endangerment finding now enters the public comment period, which is the next step in the deliberative process EPA must undertake before issuing final findings.

Today’s proposed finding does not include any proposed regulations. Before taking any steps to reduce greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, EPA would conduct an appropriate process and consider stakeholder input.

Notwithstanding this required regulatory process, both President Obama and Administrator Jackson have repeatedly indicated their preference for comprehensive legislation to address this issue and create the framework for a clean energy economy.

The EPA has already approved regulations that would force all American factories to produce annual reports on greenhouse emissions. They would start in 2011 and be based on 2010 emissions.

The EPA also found Friday that heat-trapping emissions from motor vehicles cause or contribute to global warming.

The Supreme Court case concerned new cars and trucks, the Clean Air Act directs the EPA to limit emissions from other sources such as power plants if a finding is made that greenhouse gases pose a danger, said Bookbinder of the Sierra Club.

Bloomberg said US power plants account for about 40% of carbon-dioxide emissions, and vehicles make up about 30%. And America produces about 20% of global man-made carbon-dioxide emissions, according to Energy Department figures.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.