EPA to greenhouse gas polluters: Get ready to pay

Say what you will about banking and security issues; on the environment, the Obama administration is not messing around.

Published April 17, 2009 5:42PM (EDT)

On the banking crisis, Paul Krugman believes the Obama administration is no different than its predecessor in kowtowing to Wall Street. On security issues, Glenn Greenwald believes that the Obama White House is continuing some of the Bush administration's worst policies. Both can make strong cases for their point of view.

But on the environment there is simply no comparison. The latest confirmation came Friday morning, when the Environmental Protection Agency announced its decision that greenhouse gas emissions pose a public health threat, and thus should be considered pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act.

This is a big deal, because technically speaking, it means that the EPA can now directly regulate industrial emissions of greenhouse gases. No carbon tax or cap-and-trade scheme is necessary -- just good old-fashioned command-and-control regulation.

It's a worst-case scenario for industry. The effects of a carbon tax would be distributed widely and a cap-and-trade system would give emitters considerable latitude to use market-based mechanisms to bring down emissions. Direct regulation, in contrast, will confront polluters with large upfront costs. Lawsuits are sure to follow.

But lawsuits would also be expensive, and given that the Supreme Court has already determined that carbon dioxide is a pollutant under the terms of the Clean Air Act, fighting the EPA in the courts is bound to be a losing proposition. So maybe it's time for industry to cut a deal?

The Wall Street Journal says, "White House officials made it clear Friday that President Obama still prefers a legislative approach to curbing global warming" and that "Mr. Obama is under pressure to use the EPA's findings as a cudgel as Democratic leaders push the difficult [cap-and-trade] legislation." But that's a strange framing, as it seems to imply that Obama is at odds with his own EPA.

Ridiculous. Obama's appointments to all the key environmental posts are strong believers that serious action must be taken on climate change. The EPA's new finding is a direct result of his victory. Obama isn't "under pressure" to use the findings as cudgel. He's already swinging the hammer.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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