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THE NATION

EPA Won't Regulate 'Greenhouse Gases'

Environmental groups' bid for the agency to cut new-vehicle emissions is denied. California may sue, saying the decision threatens state efforts.

August 29, 2003|Aaron Zitner, Gary Polakovic and Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday it would not force automakers, oil companies or others to reduce "greenhouse gas" emissions from automobiles, a decision that may complicate efforts by California and other states to limit the release of carbon dioxide.

The EPA denied a 1999 petition from environmental groups, which had asked the agency to use its powers under the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide and other emissions from new vehicles.

Burning oil and other fossil fuels produces gases that can rapidly concentrate in the atmosphere and cause temperatures to rise, a condition known as the greenhouse effect. This global warming, the environmental groups contend, will cause increases in infectious disease, skin cancer, water quality problems and other threats to public health.

But the EPA said that Congress had not sorted out federal policy on climate change, and that lawmakers had not authorized the agency to use the Clean Air Act to stop global warming.

"This is an issue that needs to be addressed first by Congress.... It was quite clear Congress had no intention of giving us the authority to regulate global climate change," said Jeffrey Holmstead, the EPA's assistant administrator for air programs.

"This is a sound decision that puts the issue directly where it belongs -- back in Congress," said William Kovacs, vice president of environmental policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The announcement came as little surprise.

Early in his term, President Bush reversed a campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, and the administration has favored voluntary efforts rather than mandates to industry to control greenhouse gases.

David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based environmental group, called the decision "another big favor for big-polluter campaign contributors" to the Bush administration.

The International Center for Technology Assessment, a Washington-based technology policy organization that filed the 1999 petition along with Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, said it would challenge the EPA's decision in court.

In California, an air-quality official also promised to sue the EPA, saying the federal agency's decision threatened state efforts to control greenhouse gases.

Under a law signed last year by Gov. Gray Davis, California became the first state to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicle tailpipes. The law requires automakers to reduce emissions as much as possible according to rules the California Air Resources Board is scheduled to release in 2005. The rules would take effect in 2009.

Catherine Witherspoon, the board's executive officer, said her agency would sue the EPA to force it to identify carbon dioxide as an air pollutant.

"The EPA not only rejected the petition but made a decision that could limit individual states trying to regulate greenhouse gas pollutants," Witherspoon said. "We fundamentally disagree. We have to stand up and litigate for ourselves over whether greenhouse gases are pollutants."

Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and North Carolina are also considering laws or regulations to require industries -- mainly power plants -- to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

"The states have demonstrated very successfully over the years that when the federal government does not act, the states will step in and fill that void," said S. William Becker, executive director of the Assn. of Local Air Pollution Control Officials.

The EPA's action came one day after another controversial agency announcement. On Wednesday, environmental groups protested as the EPA unveiled revisions to the Clean Air Act that allow power plants and factories to upgrade without installing antipollution devices.

The Thursday decision on vehicle emissions also drew complaints from environmental groups. They noted that during the Clinton administration, two successive EPA general counsels had concluded that the agency did in fact have authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

The EPA on Thursday formally withdrew a legal memorandum laying out that opinion.

EPA critics ridiculed the agency's reasoning, under which it concluded that carbon dioxide, hydrofluorocarbons and other emissions did not meet the legal definition of "air pollutants" under the Clean Air Act.

"Refusing to call these gases 'pollutants' is like refusing to say that smoking causes lung cancer," said Melissa Carey of Environmental Defense, a New York-based policy group. "There are things we have to come to terms with: The Earth is round, Elvis is dead and climate change is really happening."

With the EPA limiting its role in global warming, new attention will fall on regulatory efforts in Congress.

In the Senate, Republican leaders have promised a vote this fall on legislation from Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) that would attempt to reduce gases believed to contribute to global warming. Lieberman is a candidate for his party's presidential nomination.

Carbon dioxide and other emissions from vehicles account for at least 18% of U.S. greenhouse gas production, environmental groups said.

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Zitner and Shogren reported from Washington. Polakovic reported from Los Angeles.

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