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EPA's greenhouse gas ruling defies economic warning

The agency's declaration that emissions pose a health danger could have 'serious economic consequences' and lead to lawsuits against the government, an outside assessment concludes.

May 13, 2009|Jim Tankersley

WASHINGTON — In ruling last month that greenhouse gases posed health and safety risks, the Environmental Protection Agency brushed aside warnings from Bush administration holdovers who said the move was "likely to have serious economic consequences" for small businesses and the economy overall, according to documents obtained Tuesday.

Obama administration officials said the warnings, contained in memos from the Small Business Administration's Office of Advocacy, didn't reflect current White House policy. The office is still stocked with Bush appointees, the administration officials said.

Nevertheless, Republicans hailed the memos as a sign of internal dissent over the EPA finding, which was considered an important step toward the Obama administration's goal of taking major action against carbon dioxide and other emissions that scientists say contribute to global warming.

Questioning EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in a committee hearing Tuesday, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) called the memos "a smoking gun, saying that your findings were political and not scientific." Environmentalists and the White House dismissed the dissent as reflecting the Bush administration's long-standing position on climate change.

The critique was the work of "someone who didn't get the memo that the old administration has come to an end," said David Doniger, policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center.

White House budget director Peter R. Orszag was not available for comment, but he wrote on his blog Tuesday that his office would not have allowed the EPA to move forward with its proposed ruling "if we had concerns about whether EPA's finding was consistent with either the law or the underlying science."

One of the critical memos said the proposed endangerment finding could open the door to lawsuits that might force the government to impose restrictions on such unrelated matters as electromagnetic fields and noise pollution.

A companion document, from the same Small Business Administration source, questioned the basis for the EPA's statement that greenhouse gases "overwhelmingly" endanger public health and welfare.

Predictions of devastating climate change are "accompanied by uncertainties so large that they potentially overwhelm the magnitude of the harm," the document said.

By contrast, the EPA's final conclusion was that the evidence in support of its finding was "compelling and, indeed, overwhelming . . . the product of decades of research by thousands of scientists from the U.S. and around the world." It added that scientific evidence "points ineluctably to the conclusion" that greenhouse gas emissions contribute to global warming.

A 2007 Supreme Court decision ordered the EPA to review the scientific case for regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. The Bush administration essentially ignored the decision; before taking office, President Obama had promised to address it quickly.

Obama has pushed Congress to pass legislation that would not only limit greenhouse gas emissions, but also force power plants, factories and other major sources of those gases to obtain permits to cover their emissions.

The EPA's "endangerment finding" is currently the subject of a 60-day public comment period. A final conclusion could lead to broad new regulations that could affect cars, power plants, factories and other emitters of the heat-trapping gases scientists blame for global warming.

The Small Business Administration warnings over the proposal stemmed from a standard review process. When federal agencies propose rules, other agencies typically have the opportunity to comment on them. The White House Office of Management and Budget compiles those comments into memos and line-by-line critiques of the draft rules.

The documents question the economic costs of regulating carbon dioxide emissions and raise concerns that the data supporting the EPA findings are based almost entirely on health research not conducted by the agency.

The EPA appears to have modified several parts of its draft rule in response to the critiques, most notably by adding sections that predict warming temperatures could bring some benefits to parts of the U.S.

"Like we would in any process," EPA press secretary Adora Andy said Tuesday, "we take these comments under advisement."

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jtankersley@latimes.com

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