EPA Targets Major Emitters

Journal sees an admission that limiting carbon will be costly

The Environmental Protection Agency sent a “tailoring rule” to the White House for consideration on Saturday that would limit regulation of greenhouse-gas emissions under the Clean Air Act to large, industrial sources.

It’s easy to view the rule as the agency doing what it as said it would do all along – go after major emitters and leave everybody else alone. But The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board doesn’t see it that way. Instead, it sees an implicit admission on the agency’s part that limiting carbon-dioxide emissions will hurt the economy. That is a misleading perspective.

The EPA, and most environmental economists, has always acknowledged that there will be short-term costs associated with weaning the nation off fossil fuels. The idea is that the long-term benefits of switching to clean-energy technologies will outweigh them. The agency’s tailoring rule is thus a strategy to limit near-term economic disruptions it always knew were possible, not some knee-jerk reaction to a problem it recognized yesterday.

In April, the EPA issued an “endangerment finding” for carbon dioxide and five other gases that contribute to global warming, designating them pollutants that threaten public health and welfare. The Obama administration was clear about its preference for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions via a legislative solution such as a cap-and-trade scheme, however. Indeed, many energy experts have worried about the regulatory approach, arguing that the Clean Air Act was not designed to deal such a ubiquitous gas as carbon dioxide.

The act requires the EPA to regulate any source that emits more than 250 tons of a given pollutant each year. Regulating carbon dioxide along that line would affect 1.2 million companies, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimated. But the Obama administration and the EPA have consistently stated that they have no intention of regulating schools, hospitals, and myriad small businesses. Hence the tailoring rule, which would unilaterally increase the emission threshold for carbon dioxide to 25,000 tons annually.

Nonetheless, where one might see the EPA following through on a promise to mitigate economic disruption, The Wall Street Journal sees capitulation. In a Thursday editorial, the board wrote:

In a speech in February, Obama EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson ridiculed those of us who warned about these consequences, saying that it was “a myth” that “EPA will regulate cows, Dunkin’ Donuts, Pizza Hut, your lawnmower and baby bottles… . Somebody said to me today, ‘kittens,’ I like that one.” Her routine got a big laugh from the like-minded Georgetown audience, but the new [tailoring] rule is a flat-out admission that the critics are right.

Or, again, it could be the EPA is just doing exactly what it always said it would do. “By moving [the carbon-dioxide] threshold to 25,000 tons per year, the permitting rule would cover roughly 13,000 facilities from all sectors of the economy that account for 85 to 90 percent of U.S. emissions, the agency said,” according to an article at Greenwire.

But “If the green future is going to be so bright,” the Journal asked, “why does the White House want to exempt so many businesses from its glories?”

Well, again, because Obama seems to understand there will inevitably be short-term costs and is trying to mitigate them while pushing toward that long-term payoff. The EPA’s tailoring rule is certainly no “repudiation” of that strategy, as the Journal claims—in fact, the two are quite consistent. The Journal argued that “the green lobby will quickly sue to force the EPA to enforce fully its own rules and go after all carbon sources.” But that is doubtful.

Groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have opposed the energy bill currently floating through Congress for not laying out more aggressive climate goals. But there is little reason to believe that they would argue for regulating the carbon-dioxide emissions at schools and hospitals. Indeed, David Bookbinder, chief climate counsel at the Sierra Club, told Greenwire that “environmentalists are comfortable with the 25,000 ton threshold.”

None of this is to say that regulating greenhouse-gas emission under the Clean Air Act is the best way to address global warming. It almost surely isn’t. And even if environmentalists don’t contest the new rule, it is legally vulnerable. Indeed, the Journal’s strongest criticism was that while the U.S. Supreme Court directed the EPA to consider regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant two year ago, the justices “said nothing that would let the EPA simply decide on its own to apply the law to some unfavored business while giving others a pass.”

Whether not the EPA should be allowed to do that is, in fact, a great question. But the Journal’s attempt to peg the agency’s tailoring rule as some epiphanic admission that limiting carbon emission poses economic challenges is naïve. The EPA is trying to address those challenges, yes—but it acknowledged them a long time ago.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.