Only months after saying it would prefer comprehensive national climate legislation dealing with greenhouse gas emissions, its Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a proposal to require large industrial facilities to secure construction and operating permits for those emissions. "This is a common sense rule that is carefully tailored to apply to only the largest sources, those from sectors responsible for nearly 70% of US greenhouse gas emissions sources," says EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson. This would primarily apply to power plants, refineries and factories, or any facility that emits at least 25,000 tons of greenhouse gases.
The new EPA effort is widely considered to be a reaction to the creeping realisation of political realities in the US capital, Washington DC. A climate change bill was introduced last month in the Senate but support from Congress is fractured. "I think most people do not expect to see comprehensive climate legislation this year. It's too big and there are too many other big priorities for this administration," says Ryan Wiser, a renewables specialist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He adds that wind in particular stands to benefit because reduction in greenhouse gases is one of the primary justifications for renewable electricity.
The EPA plan will face many challenges. It first has to live within existing laws, which is likely to constrain its efforts at regulation and enforcement. EPA's right to regulate will be challenged by powerful interests. "Suffice it to say that there will be a legal battle as to whether they can or cannot do what they're proposing to be," says Wiser. "I don't know what the resolution of that legal battle will be." Yet private industry generally prefers major regulatory reforms to be enacted in Congress, where special interests affected by the law can press for certain rules and structures. Regulatory change enacted at agency level can be more closed off to input from both the public and private sectors.The prospect of losing control may help motivate Congress to take up the issue. For these reasons, if EPA's plan gets tied up in court battles, it could nevertheless serve a purpose as added incentive for Congress to form its own regulation. As Wiser says: "Lets face it, climate legislation could take five years or one year, so anything the administration does to try and accelerate that time-frame is potentially useful if that's your goal."
The EPA's plan also provides political cover for Obama and the US delegation attending the global climate change conference in Copenhagen next month (see page 57). With no congressional action on climate change, the delegation would be in a weakened position to ask for strong concessions from other countries, so the EPA plan provides proof of action, even if the agency may later find it hard to enforce.