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The price of greenhouse gases

As White House officials weigh issuing a finding that climate change endangers public health, foes of greenhouse gas regulations are ignoring the cost of doing nothing.

March 24, 2009

President Bush's greatest crime against the environment was his refusal to regulate greenhouse gases. The Obama administration is reportedly wasting little time righting that wrong.

Quoting unnamed sources, the Washington Post reported Monday that the Environmental Protection Agency has sent the White House a preliminary finding that climate change is endangering public health and welfare. If this is cleared by the Office of Management and Budget and finalized by EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, it would lay the groundwork for national regulation of carbon dioxide and other global warming gases. That would have an impact on the economy, though whether positive or negative is a matter of debate.

Firmly focused on the downside is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has long argued that a climate-change crackdown would devastate Main Street America, imposing costly permitting requirements on such facilities as schools, hospitals and office buildings. Reacting to news of the pending EPA finding, chamber officials are even claiming that it would undermine President Obama's economic stimulus package because infrastructure projects to be built with the money would be delayed by reviews of their impact on greenhouse gases.

Not really. The EPA finding would apply only to emissions from vehicles. If the agency does find that they endanger the public, it would add urgency to a process that's already underway to toughen fuel-efficiency standards. Eventually, it might also lead to regulation of emissions from other sources, particularly power plants. But that's years away, and onerous rules for schools and offices are unlikely. As for the stimulus money, most or all will be spent by the time the EPA gets around to regulating new construction.

Left unmentioned by the chamber, and other groups opposing strong government measures to fight climate change, is the fact that the EPA is obliged by both law and science to take action. In 2007, the Supreme Court ordered the EPA to issue a ruling on whether greenhouse gases were endangering the public; if so, it would be forced under the Clean Air Act to do something about it. With no scientific basis to claim that global warming isn't harmful -- doing so would contradict the EPA's own findings -- the Bush administration's only recourse was to stall. So it avoided making a decision while running out the clock.

There will be winners and losers in the clean-energy economy, and those who stand to lose have the loudest voices in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The winners won't just be green-technology innovators; they include everybody on Earth. The EPA should issue an endangerment finding, and Congress should quickly pass new laws that impose a price on greenhouse gases.

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