The Magazine

The EPA's Power Grab

The climate campaigners play their trump card, but it may turn out to be a joker.

Dec 28, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 15 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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It is important to understand why the Clean Air Act worked on conventional air pollution so as to appreciate why it is an inappropriate policy tool for greenhouse gases--akin to wearing thick mittens to peel an onion. Greenhouse gases are not comparable to traditional forms of air pollution such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, lead, and ozone. Reducing conventional sources of air pollution was mostly a technological problem--such as removing lead from gasoline, improving combustion efficiency (a lot of air pollution came from evaporating or incompletely burned fuel), and capturing pollutants, as was done with "scrubbers" on coal-fired power plants to reduce sulfur dioxide. The EPA regulations might be excessively costly, but they imposed no constraint on the use of fuel or energy. To the contrary, the use of coal in the United States has doubled since the 1970s, while sulfur dioxide emissions from coal have been cut by about two-thirds. Likewise we have more than doubled our gasoline and diesel fuel consumption since 1970, but reduced auto and truck emissions more than two-thirds through reformulated fuel, catalytic converters, and better engine combustion technology. Emissions trading (cap and trade) has been one of the tools used to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions efficiently, but it is simpleminded in the extreme to suppose that just because sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide both end in "dioxide," cap and trade will work exactly the same way for CO2.

Carbon dioxide emissions are an energy use problem pure and simple, and not a byproduct problem like other forms of air pollution. As Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, dissidents in the environmental movement, have written: "Global warming is as different from smog in Los Angeles as nuclear war is from gang violence." The only way to reduce CO2 emissions is to burn a lot less fossil fuel--ultimately almost none if the ambitious target of climate orthodoxy is to be met (an 80 percent reduction by the year 2050). With the partial exception of still unproven and hugely expensive carbon sequestration for coal, there are no add-on technologies to remove carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion, and there is no such thing as "low-carbon" coal, gasoline, or natural gas (comparable to low-sulfur coal and diesel). The EPA can only reduce CO2 by regulating fuel inputs in the economy--something it never did in regulating conventional air pollutants. In other words, this step promises to turn the EPA into an energy regulatory agency.

But differences between carbon dioxide and conventional air pollutants are only the beginning of the story. It is the peculiar way the Clean Air Act regulations operate that has business groups in an uproar now. There are several steps to the Clean Air Act process. Once a pollutant has been identified as harmful to human health, the next step is to determine its "safe," "health-based" maximum level. This will be a fascinating process to watch with CO2. The current ambient level of CO2 is about 390 parts per million (ppm). Climate orthodoxy per the Kyoto-Copenhagen process aims for CO2 to reach no higher than 450 ppm. If the EPA adopted 450 ppm as the U.S. ambient standard, then no part of the country would be in violation, which would greatly complicate the task of justifying regulation. The EPA could still propose regulations for CO2 under another feature of the Clean Air Act--"prevention of significant deterioration." More likely the EPA will arbitrarily designate an ambient CO2 level below the current level of 390 ppm; lately the most vocal climate campaigners, such as former vice president Al Gore, have been claiming that 350 ppm is the safe level we must somehow return to.

The next step in the process is to designate specific "non-attainment" areas around the nation--that is, areas where ambient levels of pollution are higher than the health-based standard. Most major metropolitan areas were at one time designated a "non-attainment" area for one or more pollutants over the last 30 years. This is important because regulatory measures are then tailored to match local differences in sources of pollution. Texas and Louisiana, for example, have pollution profiles different from the rest of the country because of the heavy presence of petrochemical refining, while the Northeast has a pollution problem from coal-fired power plants in the Ohio valley, and California suffers mostly from car and truck emissions. But large parts of the nation--rural areas and sparsely populated states such as Wyoming and Montana--are with a few exceptions not subject to Clean Air Act regulation and permitting requirements. But in the case of CO2, the EPA is likely to designate the entire country as a non-attainment area.