Schooling ABC on the ABCs of "Endangerment"

ABC News is making a big deal about a document attributed to the White House Office of Management and Budget critiquing the Environmental Protection Agency's finding  that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are dangerous to public health and the environment.  As I explain here, with this endangerment determination, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson and the Obama administration have finally started taking long-overdue action to curb carbon pollution under the Clean Air Act. 

ABC and other news outlets would have you believe they've stumbled on a fight within the Obama administration about whether to regulate the pollution that's driving global warming.  But there's much less here than meets the eye. 

The document they've found was written in March or April during the OMB's review of the draft of EPA's determination, pursuant to the Supreme Court's landmark 2007 decision on global warming, that CO2 and other heat-trapping pollutants are dangerous to public health and the environment.  [Update May 13:  GristThe Atlantic, and others reported late Tuesday that the document was written by a Bush-holdover in the Small Business Administration.  So much for the theory of internal dissension.]  It parrots a hodgepodge of tired arguments offered by industry groups throughout the Bush administration.  But those arguments were not followed by OMB's current managers, who cleared EPA's action without delay, nor by EPA, which issued the determination on April 17.

In his own blog, OMB director Peter Orszag writes today that this was "a document in which OMB simply collated and collected disparate comments from various agencies during the inter-agency review process of the proposed finding," and that those comments "do not necessarily represent the views of either OMB or the Administration."  "Any reports suggesting that OMB was opposed to the finding are unfounded," Orszag writes, and claims that OMB "had concerns about whether EPA's finding was consistent with either the law or the underlying science" are "simply false."

In fact, EPA's endangerment determination rests solidly on the scientific conclusions of the Nobel prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Academy of Sciences, and (ironically) the government's own climate change studies conducted during the Bush administration. 

Here are some of the highlights (or lowlights) that ABC and other news outlets have seized on.  For example, the document suggests "there is a concern that EPA is making a finding based on . . . 'harm' from substances that have no demonstrated direct health effects, such as respiratory or toxic effects." 

  • But EPA has the broad responsibility under the Clean Air Act to protect us from pollutants that "endanger public health" - there's nothing in the law that limits matters just to the dangers of direct inhalation. As EPA quite properly found, the air pollutants that drive global warming pollution harm our health by many means: by causing more severe heat-waves, by enhancing smog formation, by expanding the range of infectious diseases, and by causing more frequent and severe floods, wildfires, hurricanes, and other deadly weather events. 

The document also complains that EPA is "applying a dramatically expanded precautionary principle" by taking into account well-documented risks of global warming expected to unfold in the future. 

  • Maybe "dramatically expanded" compared to the pinched practices of the last eight years, but this is actually a return to the Clean Air Act as it was written. More than 30 years ago, in a landmark case called Ethyl Corp. v. EPA, the federal courts upheld EPA's decision to take lead out of gasoline because of scientific evidence strongly indicating - but not proving beyond a reasonable doubt - that lead exposure caused neurological damage to children. (For those with access to legal research tools, the Ethyl decision can be found at 541 F.2d 1 (1976) - it's a great read.) In 1977 Clean Air Act amendments, Congress ratified the Ethyl decision's "precautionary" approach by adopting the requirement that EPA act when scientific evidence shows that a pollutant "may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare." That's the legal mandate EPA is following now. 

The document also charges that EPA regulation of global warming pollution from cars or power plants "is likely to have serious economic consequences for regulated entities throughout the U.S. economy, including small businesses and small communities." 

  • That's the Chamber of Commerce's favorite argument - that if EPA ever starts using the Clean Air Act, it will never be able to stop. That using the Clean Air Act to address big sources - like cars and power plants - will inevitably lead to regulating every donut shop and barbeque in the land. But EPA has plenty of tools for focusing on the big sources, not the tiny ones. Check out Administrator Lisa Jackson's exchange today with Senator John Barrasso, posted here (starting at 4:32), in which she explained that EPA is focusing on the big sources, not small ones. In short, donut and barbeque lovers can sleep soundly at night.

NRDC applauds President Obama and Administrator Jackson for taking swift action to recognize the dangers of global warming and start using the Clean Air Act that's on the books today.  We can take a big bite out of global warming pollution from cars and power plants using the Clean Air Act we have today.  But NRDC also joins with the president in recognizing that we cannot do all that is needed under the current law.  We also need new legislation to cap and cut carbon emissions, to raise energy efficiency and renewable energy standards, and to rebuild the economy and create millions of new jobs on a foundation of clean energy.