Can EPA kick-start climate legislation?

The San Francisco Chronicle this morning quotes EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson as saying that her agency will soon finalize its greenhouse endangerment finding (notwithstanding the Chamber of Commerce’s absurd demand for an adjudicatory hearing).  As the story says, “Supporters of climate change legislation are hoping the threat of EPA-mandated limits will spur congressional action.” Although the House passed the Waxman-Markey bill in June, its counterpart has not yet been introduced in the Senate. The Chronicle reports that Senators Boxer and Kerry now plan to introduce a bill later this month.

Will EPA action force the pace? It can’t hurt. There’s no question that industry is worried about the impacts if EPA robustly takes up its statutory duties under the Clean Air Act. EPA’s proposed endangerment finding, announced in April, certainly helped the House pass its legislation. But there’s a lot of inertia in the Senate, and so far EPA doesn’t look to be pushing all that hard.

According to Jackson, the endangerment finding will be finalized “in the next months.” Six months from proposed to final finding is a pretty good pace for EPA, especially on a controversial action that drew many detailed comments. But because EPA expressly limited its endangerment finding to emissions from cars and trucks, the finding itself will have only limited effect. EPA is working on tailpipe emission standards similar to California’s. That’s a very good thing, but not likely to be enough of a stick to goad the Senate into action.

If the Obama administration is serious about getting climate legislation through, it will do two things. First, the President himself should lead from the front, making the political case for strong emission limits. (According to the latest polls, more than half the public is ready to hear that case.) Second, EPA should push hard, making it clear that it knows where the Clean Air Act already requires it to deal with greenhouse gases, and it’s prepared to take up that case aggressively.

New Source Review would be the quickest place to start, and probably the one industry most fears. Only an interpretive memorandum issued by the last administration stands in the way of requiring greenhouse gas emission controls through the new source review process, and EPA is reconsidering that memorandum. EPA could give a real boost to climate legislation by withdrawing that memorandum this fall, at about the same time that it finalizes its endangerment finding.

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