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US says CO2 danger to public health

THE ENVIRONMENTAL Protection Agency (EPA) formally declared carbon dioxide (CO2) a danger to public health and welfare last month, paving the way for regulation of CO2 emissions in the country for the first time. The decision, which could have far-reaching consequences for industry and household energy consumption, is a drastic departure from the policy of the previous White House, which drew frequent international criticism for its reluctance to regulate greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).

The EPA's decision, known as an "endangerment finding", ruled that CO2 and five other heat-trapping gases were damaging the environment; and it gives the agency legal authority to begin supervising power plants, and chemical and cement factories.

Political observers have interpreted the decision as an attempt by President Barack Obama's government to strengthen the country's bargaining position at the UN climate change talks in Copenhagen in December and to put pressure on Congress to pass a comprehensive package of environmental legislation, including a cap-and-trade system to curb emissions.

A 60-day public review period follows before the EPA is empowered to take action and is likely to see forceful lobbying in Washington from utilities, car manufacturers and other affected industries. While green groups have lauded the EPA's action, it has been attacked by the US Chamber of Commerce and several Republican legislators. Senator Christopher Bond of Missouri said last month that the endangerment ruling "will do more to endanger families, farmers and workers with new energy taxes and lost jobs than it does to protect the environment".

The EPA announcement was based on scientific analysis of CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride. It did not contain specific targets or new requirements for energy efficiency in vehicles, power plants or industry, although these may emerge after the 60-day consultation period.

Half of the US' electricity is generated by coal, the most carbon-intensive fuel; coal states, including Obama's home state of Illinois, face the possibility of job losses in the event of stringent curbs.

Another test of policy will be the EPA's forthcoming decision, due by 30 June, on whether to permit California to proceed with its first-in-the-nation proposal to impose cuts on CO2 pollution from car exhausts. More than a dozen other states have committed to following California's example if it is endorsed by the EPA. That would mean an abrupt tightening of fuel-efficiency regulations across 40% of the US car market, but with a restructuring of the US' auto industry under negotiation, car companies have argued that the California decision ought to be postponed.

Obama has said he wants to put the country on course to slash GHG emissions by 80% by 2050. Obama officials have claimed that environmental reform is also important to reduce the country's long-term dependence on foreign energy sources, and will "create millions of green jobs".

Although the EPA is empowered to regulate CO2 emissions under the US Clean Air Act, the administration has indicated that it would prefer Congress to address global warming than have the EPA tackle it through administrative action, which could be subject to legal challenges. Congressional Democrats envisage a system of trading permits for industrial emissions of heat-trapping gases, similar to the EU model (see below), in which polluters can meet limits either by reducing emissions or buying credits from more efficient producers.

The EPA ruling has also been widely interpreted as a diplomatic gesture ahead of the Copenhagen meeting. The US hopes to persuade emerging industrial countries, especially China and India, to agree to combat rising emissions, and is keen to demonstrate to the world that it is leading by example.

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