We Need EPA’s Authority: Would You Fly a Plane without a Backup Engine?

As Senators Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman get closer to introducing their clean energy and climate bill next week, there has been a lot of speculation about whether it will displace the EPA’s and the states’ authority to regulate global warming pollution.

While this may sound like some dense, bureaucratic tussle, it has real implications for America’s best tools for keeping our air clean and safe. So let me put it in more familiar terms.

Would you fly in an airplane that had no back up system? Imagine that the hydraulics in your plane suddenly failed and the captain couldn’t get the landing gear down. Wouldn’t you want the plane to have a back up system so you could return to the ground safely?

That is what the existing Clean Air Act as administered by the EPA and the states offers in the case of federal legislation to regulate global warming pollution: back up.

I support enacting a federal cap to cut carbon emissions. I think a well-designed cap will be effective. But what if unanticipated problems arise and the federal cap doesn’t work as expected to meet the reduction targets? That is when the key provisions of the existing Clean Air Act should be there as our back up system. The EPA and the states should be there with extra tools to get the job done.

This dual-pronged approach is nothing new. The Clean Air Act has never relied on one system alone to reach its pollution limits. The Acid Rain program, for instance, includes an overall cap on sulfur emissions, but it also includes New Source Review, so that when a company puts new money into an old plant to refurbish it, then it has to invest in modern pollution control technology at the same time.

Industry already has 20 years of experience working with a cap and complementary programs at the same time. This approach-- of focusing on one main cap, but working with a safety net below--has indisputably made our nation’s air cleaner and safer. The acid rain program, for instance, has dramatically reduced soot and smog by levels that will reduce premature deaths by between 20,000 and 50,000 per year in 2010.

The two-pronged approach gets results. And that is why we should also maintain state authority to regulate emissions as well. It offers a similar safety valve.

For example, it is absolutely imperative to keep California’s authority over vehicle emissions. When the federal government has turned its back on innovation, California administrations of both parties have lead the nation with ambitious new standards, and other states have eagerly followed. Likewise, all states must maintain their freedom to curb emissions through a variety of efficiency standards, performance standards, and limits on factory-type sources.

This is the authority that turns states into laboratories of innovation. When the federal government goes dark, the lights stay on in states across the nation, and this is what pushes America forward.

Innovation coupled with strong safety nets make for a powerful combination--in carbon caps and in airplanes.