Business Fumes Over Carbon Dioxide Rule
By JEFFREY BALL and CHARLES FORELLE
Officials gather in Copenhagen this week for an international climate summit, but business leaders are focusing even more on Washington, where the Obama administration is expected as early as Monday to formally declare carbon dioxide a dangerous pollutant.
An “endangerment” finding by the Environmental Protection Agency could pave the way for the government to require businesses that emit carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases to make costly changes in machinery to reduce emissions — even if Congress doesn’t pass pending climate-change legislation. EPA action to regulate emissions could affect the U.S. economy more directly, and more quickly, than any global deal inked in the Danish capital, where no binding agreement is expected.
Many business groups are opposed to EPA efforts to curb a gas as ubiquitous as carbon dioxide.
An EPA endangerment finding “could result in a top-down command-and-control regime that will choke off growth by adding new mandates to virtually every major construction and renovation project,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue said in a statement. “The devil will be in the details, and we look forward to working with the government to ensure we don’t stifle our economic recovery,” he said, noting that the group supports federal legislation.
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EPA action won’t do much to combat climate change, and “is certain to come at a huge cost to the economy,” said the National Association of Manufacturers, a trade group that stands as a proxy for U.S. industry.
Dan Riedinger, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, a power-industry trade group, said the EPA would be less likely than Congress to come up with an “economywide approach” to regulating emissions. The power industry prefers such an approach because it would spread the burden of emission cuts to other industries as well.
Electricity generation, transportation and industry represent the three largest sources of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions.
An EPA spokeswoman declined to comment Sunday on when the agency might finalize its proposed endangerment finding. Congressional Republicans have called on the EPA to withdraw it, saying recently disclosed emails written by scientists at the Climatic Research Unit of the U.K.’s University of East Anglia and their peers call into question the scientific rationale for regulation.
The spokeswoman said that the EPA is confident the basis for its decision will be “very strong,” and that when it is published, “we invite the public to review the extensive scientific analysis informing” the decision.
EPA action would give President Barack Obama something to show leaders from other nations when he attends the Copenhagen conference on Dec. 18 and tries to persuade them that the U.S. is serious about cutting its contribution to global greenhouse-gas emissions.
The vast majority of increased greenhouse-gas emissions is expected to come from developing countries such as China and India, not from rich countries like the U.S. But developing countries have made it clear that their willingness to reduce growth in emissions will depend on what rich countries do first. That puts a geopolitical spotlight on the U.S.
At the heart of the fight over whether U.S. emission constraints should come from the EPA or Congress is a high-stakes issue: which industries will have to foot the bill for a climate cleanup. A similar theme will play out in Copenhagen as rich countries wrangle over how much they should have to pay to help the developing world shift to cleaner technologies.
“There is no agreement without money,” says Rosário Bento Pais, a top climate negotiator for the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm. “That is clear.”
An endangerment finding would allow the EPA to use the federal Clean Air Act to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions, which are produced whenever fossil fuel is burned. Under that law, the EPA could require emitters of as little as 250 tons of carbon dioxide per year to install new technology to curb their emissions starting as soon as 2012.
The EPA has said it will only require permits from big emitters — facilities that put out 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year. But that effort to tailor the regulations to avoid slamming small businesses with new costs is expected to be challenged in court.
Legislators are aware that polls show the public appetite for action that would raise energy prices to protect the environment has fallen precipitously amid the recession.
Congressional legislation also faces plenty of U.S. industry opposition. Under the legislation, which has been passed by the House but is now stuck in the Senate, the federal government would set a cap on the amount of greenhouse gas the economy could emit every year. The government would distribute a set number of emission permits to various industries. Companies that wanted to be able to emit more than their quota could buy extra permits from those that had figured out how to emit less.
Proponents of the cap-and-trade approach say emission-permit trading will encourage industries to find the least-expensive ways to curb greenhouse-gas output. But opponents say it will saddle key industries with high costs not borne by rivals in China or India, and potentially cost the U.S. jobs.
AFP/Getty ImagesAn official prepares the Danish flag in the large Copenhagen meeting hall that will host the United Nation’s summit on climate change beginning Monday. The conference ends Dec. 18.
The oil industry has warned that climate legislation could force some U.S. refineries to shut down, because importing gasoline from countries without emission caps could be cheaper than making the gasoline on domestic soil.
Legislators “have decided that coal and electric users don’t bear the burden” of emissions constraints for many years, said John Felmy, chief economist for the American Petroleum Institute, an industry group. “Early in the program, oil users are the ones who are hammered.”
The Iron and Steel Institute, which represents more than 75% of steel made in the U.S., said that successful climate policy — whether through the EPA or Congress — must “reduce emissions without altering the competitiveness of American steelmakers.”
— James Briggs
The issue of how curbing emissions would affect jobs in developed countries is likely to erupt in Copenhagen in the battle over how much rich countries should pony up for cleaner technologies in developing nations.
Estimates of the cost for reducing emissions in developing countries vary widely, but the European Commission said in September that the bill could reach $150 billion annually by 2020. Leaders of the EU’s 27 nations have said only that the EU would pay its “fair share” of the total, without committing to an amount.
Yet EU industry lobbies are weighing in against that proposal. It is “not realistic,” said Axel Eggert, spokesman for Eurofer, the trade group for European steelmakers. Steelmakers want to “make sure that the financing is not a subsidy for our competitors,” he said.
— Ian Talley and Stephen Power contributed to this article.