Posted by: greeningwashington | April 13, 2009

A Dose of Greenhouse Gas



According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), which is one of 27 research institutes that comprise the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), 30.8 million people in the United States suffer from asthma.


Since its inception in 1966, NIEHS has focused on, among other conditions, the effects of indoor pollution on respiratory diseases such as asthma. By their own admission, the NIEHS admits that most of their asthma research has been focused on indoor allergens and that research on the effects of outdoor pollution such as smog, ozone, or greenhouse gases, has been understudied.


The research that has been done on the correlation between smog, etc. and respiratory conditions show that children who had higher levels of nitrogen dioxide — a pollutant emitted from motor vehicles — in the air around their homes were more likely to develop asthma symptoms according to a study by the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine and as stated in an NIEHS report. Additionally, the NIH and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggest on their websites that even modest increases in levels of air pollution cause more frequent asthma symptoms and lower lung function in children who have persistent asthma and live in inner city areas of the United States.


In the landmark ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA (2007), the Supreme Court adjudicated that (i) the Clean Air Act provided for regulation of carbon emissions from motor vehicles because the “Act’s definition of air pollutant was written with “sweeping,” “capacious” language so that it would not become obsolete,” (ii) the Clean Air Act gives the EPA authority to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and (iii) the EPA cannot decline to issue emission standards based on policy considerations not in the Clean Air Act. The Court did not rule, however, that the EPA must regulate greenhouse gases.


 At issue in this case was Section 202 of the Clean Air Act. In order for a pollutant to be regulated under Section 202 it must be “reasonably be anticipated” to “endanger public health or welfare.” The EPA must therefore conclude that greenhouse gases from motor vehicles endanger public health prior to regulation. This has lead to the highly discussed endangerment finding that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson intends to sign on April 16.  A detailed EPA powerpoint presentation regarding the endangerment ruling provides the additional following information:

  • EPA will expand the definition of “pollutants” to include the six GHGs traditionally regulated (CO2, CH4, N2O, HFCs, PFCs, SF6). 
  • EPA will make a positive finding that GHGs impact both “public welfare” and “public health.” 
  • EPA notes that the Administrator has discretion to determine some sources of GHGs are de minimis or insignificant. 
  • EPA will propose two options for listing GHGs as “air pollutants.”  Option 1: group the six GHGs together as CO2e (C02 equivalents).  Option 2:  list each GHG individually.  EPA prefers the first option as CO2e have developed into the common currency in other regulatory and trading mechanisms
  • EPA discusses the impact of the two options discussed above on different regulatory sections of the Clean Air Act. 

According to many, regulation of carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants and motor vehicles would be one of the most broad and extensive rulemakings in recent history. Many critics note that the push toward regulation may be political grandstanding. Proponents of the regulation note that it has been long overdue.


While I believe that this move by the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases is much needed in light of scientific evidence, implementation will be slow and perhaps even ineffective. It is one thing to pass laws, it is another to implement and enforce them.


The EPA is the hunchback of the regulatory agencies — it is crippled by its extensive list of regulatory duties. The EPA must not only enforce rules, it also must provide extensive and technical research to support its regulations. Micromanaged and overloaded, the EPA is responsive to Congress and its demanding deadlines. According to Walter Rosenbaum in Environmental Politics and Policy, the EPA experiences what is categorized as the “most relentless legislative oversight of any federal agency.”


In order to set an effective precedent and produce results, the EPA must allocate sufficient resources to regulating greenhouse gases if their plan is going to work.


For the complete EPA presentation.


Until next time.


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