Engineering News

White House Eyes CO2 'Bludgeon'
August 28, 2009

The White House this week began reviewing new motor-vehicle-emission standards, signaling the administration is likely to make a key finding that greenhouse-gas emissions are a public danger by March next year.

The review is a sharp reminder from the Obama administration that, if Congress doesn't pass a climate bill soon, lawmakers risk environmental-agency regulations that many fear would be a bludgeon to affected sectors, compared to a more honed legislative program.

By declaring that greenhouse gases endanger the public health and welfare, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could spark a cascade of tough new rules and lawsuits for emitting industries across the economy. Emitters such as crude-oil refiners, cement makers, municipal landfills, dairy farms, lawn-mower manufacturers and chemical plants could face legal and regulatory pressures to make costly emission cuts, without the benefit of programs that can modify the price of polluting.

According to government documents, the Office of Management and Budget on Tuesday began analyzing a rule that would set higher emission levels - and thus fuel economy standards - for passenger cars, light trucks, and medium duty passenger vehicles.

EPA officials say final action on the rule, however, can occur only if the agency officially determines greenhouse gases are a public danger. The EPA earlier this year proposed such a finding as a necessary precursor for drafting new emission rules not only for cars, but also for power plants and any other major emitters.

If the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is to issue new standards for 2012 models, as instructed by law, the EPA must publish its final rule by March 31, 2010. Otherwise, auto manufacturers wouldn't have to institute the new standards before 2013.

"And nobody's going to let that happen," said Robin Moran, an EPA engineer working on the vehicle-emissions rule.

Moran said the EPA plans to announce the proposed vehicle-emissions rule when lawmakers return from their August recess after the U.S. Labor Day holiday.

Industry and administration officials, including EPA Director of Air and Radiation Regina McCarthy, have warned that an endangerment finding could expose both large and small emitters to legal challenges to force emission reductions. That is one of the reasons why the administration is very reluctant to move forward with regulating greenhouse gases using the Clean Air Act. It is too blunt of a tool, they say, and could have a chilling effect on the economy.

Frank O'Donnell, head of the environmental advocacy group Clean Air Watch, said moving forward on the endangerment decision would likely be interpreted as a "reminder to the Senate that it cannot ignore the climate issue."

"The EPA [endangerment] finding could be the starting point for additional administrative action on climate if the Senate fizzles," he said in an email.

O'Donnell predicted the administration would publish the vehicle-emissions rule in time for a major international climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, this December. That, along with the endangerment finding and some legislative climate-bill success in the House, would create enough political leverage necessary to fashion the foundation for a new international emissions treaty.

Although the House surprised many political pundits by passing a landmark climate bill through the chamber in late June, the legislation faces major political hurdles in the Senate. Many lawmakers in the Democratic majority - particularly from the mid-west - fear the economic impact a climate bill could have on their regions and have warned that the bill would have to undergo major surgery before they could approve it.

In a related matter, the White House has also begun reviewing a new rule for reporting greenhouse-gas emissions. That would help create the infrastructure necessary to monitor and regulate gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

Source: Dow Jones Newswires

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