Climate Solutions

The EPA Takes Carbon Emissions Into Its Own Hands

An overhaul on truck efficiency, a court victory, and a proposed aviation rule are the latest developments in Obama’s plan to fight climate change.

The EPA continues to leave Congress in the dust when it comes to policing carbon emissions. Today, the agency announced that it would crank up miles-per-gallon requirements for heavy-duty trucks, with the goal to cut emissions from tractor trailers by 24 percent, and standard-use trucks and vans by 16 percent. Meanwhile, last week, the EPA announced that it would begin regulating greenhouse-gas emissions from commercial airplanes—just one day after a federal court rejected the first challenge to the agency’s Clean Power Plan, moving the proposal one step closer to realization. The message is loud and clear: If Congress refuses to shape a responsible approach to carbon emissions through legislation, the Obama administration is prepared to go it alone.

Many experts regard the Clean Power Plan, which would cut emissions from the electricity sector by 30 percent below 2005 levels by regulating power plants, as the cornerstone of the Obama administration’s climate-change efforts. “This is definitely the big enchilada,” says Liz Perera, the Sierra Club’s climate policy director, of the plan. Ben Longstreth, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate program, agrees: “It would make a critically important dent in emissions”—power plants currently account for nearly 40 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions in the U.S.—“and would do so at a very reasonable cost by using flexible compliance methods,” says Longstreth.

On the transportation front, the EPA's updated proposal for heavy-duty trucks, which account for 20 percent of the country’s transportation-related emissions, could keep 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. The airplane emissions regulations (the details of which have yet to be worked out) won’t pack quite the same punch, as airplanes currently account for just 3 percent of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions. But that number is rapidly rising as air travel becomes more common. The new standards may also set a global precedent in advance of the International Civil Aviation Organization’s meeting next year.

The flurry of new proposals from the EPA aimed at combating climate change makes it easy to forget that it wasn’t actually supposed to be this way. Officials in the Obama administration have long said they would prefer that Congress tackle the problem of reining in greenhouse-gas emissions. But to date, no major measure has ever passed both houses with the express purpose of fighting climate change. “There are great champions in Congress who have good bills,” Perera says, “but they’re not going anywhere.”

The closest that Congress came to passing a climate bill was back in 2009—when the Democrats controlled the House and Senate—with the so-called Waxman-Markey bill, which would have mandated major cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions through a complex cap-and-trade system. Although the House narrowly approved it, a subsequent companion bill died in the Senate.

That failure was a clear signal that Congress wasn’t going to make much progress on the climate-change front. So the Obama administration picked up the slack, empowered by a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that clarified that the EPA had the right to regulate heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act.

In 2009, just months after Barack Obama took office, the EPA used that authority for the first time when it issued an endangerment finding—a prerequisite to further action under the Clean Air Act—in which it identified six greenhouse gases that threaten public health and welfare. That finding served as the basis for most of what the EPA has done during the six years since, including mandating new fuel efficiency standards for cars and heavy-duty trucks, and proposing rules that would significantly reduce methane leaks from landfills and from oil and gas wells. 

Meanwhile, Obama has taken to the bully pulpit, talking about the importance of fighting climate change in recent speeches at Everglades National Park and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Last November, the president reached a deal with China in which he pledged that the United States would cut its greenhouse-gas emissions by up to 28 percent by 2025. In return, China, the only country that emits more carbon pollution than the United States, agreed that it would try to stagnate its emissions growth by 2030.

Environmentalists are pleased with the EPA’s hustle and the tough talk from Obama, but they aren’t celebrating quite yet. The Clean Power Plan and the transportation emissions rules, along with others put forth by the president’s team, have yet to be finalized, and the road ahead is sure to be filled with further legal challenges, industry pushback, and meddling from hostile legislators. Just this week, House and Senate panels voted to gut portions of the Clean Power Plan through riders in an EPA spending bill, setting the stage for a battle this summer between Republicans in Congress and Obama, who has promised to veto any bill that cripples the new environmental regulations.

The president’s regulatory scheme is already changing the country’s energy makeup for the better, says the Sierra Club’s Perera. (She does, however, note that he has undermined himself by supporting offshore oil drilling in the Arctic.) Perera points out that many coal-fired power plants—the dirtiest of all electricity generators, and the target of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign—have already shut down operations, knowing that they won’t be able to meet the demands of the Clean Power Plan. The plan also aims to help push this shift along by incentivizing plants to switch from coal to natural gas and renewables. Once it’s finalized this summer, the president and the EPA will hopefully be able to turn their attention toward the future of the energy industry, and not the past.

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