Step Aside, Mr. President, Why the Next EPA Chief Could Be America’s Most Powerful Leader

D.C. Examiner | The most powerful person who will set forth the vision and tone for America’s future may not be Barack Obama or John McCain.  It may in fact be the next director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In the race to “do something” about climate change and curb man-made greenhouse gases (GHG), many are turning to the EPA and the Clean Air Act, which empowered the federal government to enforce clean air standards to improve human health and living conditions.

Last week, Barack Obama declared that he would classify carbon dioxide as a dangerous pollutant to be regulated by EPA, a major reversal of policy from the Bush administration that could dramatically change the everyday lives of Americans.

While the Clean Air Act has been appropriately used to curb smog, pollution, acid rain and ozone depletion, using it to combat greenhouse gases makes about as much sense as using a power drill to do brain surgery.

Make no mistake, any policy aimed at reducing manmade GHG, whether it is a cap-and- trade system or a carbon tax, is going to be costly, but using the blunt and heavy regulatory hand of the Clean Air Act will have a tremendous economic impact not just on large carbon emitters, but on our very lifestyles.

California Attorney General Jerry Brown has already made clear the broad brush with which he would like to see the act used, “Ships, aircraft and industrial equipment burn huge quantities of fossil fuel, causing greenhouse gas pollution… Because Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency continues to wantonly ignore its duty to regulate pollution, California is forced to seek judicial action.”

The costs of compliance for Brown’s vision will be severe, particularly since technologies to capture and sequester carbon are far from being online.  Those sectors that fall victim to severe Clean Air Act regulations will have no choice but to pass along the costs of compliance to consumers.

This will surely cripple an already distressed airline industry and travelers can expect to see more limited flights at a much higher cost.  Regulated shipping fleets will impact trade and commerce.

Commercial office buildings will be affected.  Large scale retailers and restaurants are tremendous consumers of energy and could also feel the pains of mandated emissions reduction.  They, too, will have no choice but to pass their increased costs on to customers.

New automobiles will undoubtedly be mandated to be equipped with the strictest emission standards, driving the costs of a new car out of reach for many.  Low carbon emitting natural gas will quickly become the favored fuel and prices will rise correspondingly to demand.  Because we are a carbon-emitting society, virtually all facets of our daily lives could fall under the purview of the next EPA administration.

Will there be any environmental gain for all of the economic pain?  Likely not, since GHG emissions are a global problem and aren’t bound by continental lines.  Despite the best efforts for industrial and business sectors to curb emissions, the Clean Air Act will have zero impact on GHG emitted and migrating from developing nations like China and India.

Until now, EPA has wisely rejected use of the Clean Air Act to tackle greenhouse gases and has been able to safeguard Americans against these misguided efforts.  In July, EPA administrator Stephen L. Johnson explained the agency’s decision: “If our nation is serious about regulating greenhouse gases, the Clean Air Act is the wrong tool for the job.”

While recent legal efforts by states and environmental groups could overturn the EPA’s decision, broad use of the Clean Air Act against greenhouse gases will likely be left up to the next president and his choice to head EPA.

If the next president wants a meaningful energy and environment policy without putting our struggling economy into a tailspin, business and industry should be invited to the table to come up with a collaborative market-based approach.

There will also need to be global partnerships that focus on practical steps to promote cleaner, less emitting technology for electricity generation from coal-fired plants, capturing and storing C02, as well as reducing emissions from steel, aluminum production, and coal mining in developing and developed countries.

Energy use and economic growth go hand in hand.  Leaders that seek solutions through legislative fiat do not recognize this fact and will do irreparable harm to both.