EPA Acts Unilaterally on Climate Change
Frustrated that it couldn’t achieve desired environmental legislation despite huge majorities in both Houses of Congress, the Obama administration has decided to govern by executive fiat.
The Obama administration took separate actions this week to protect clean air and federal wilderness areas, reaffirming that the White House can pursue its goals without depending on help from an increasingly combative Congress.
In the coming two years, that may become a more popular approach.
In a statement posted on its website late Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it is moving unilaterally to clamp down on power plant and oil refinery greenhouse emissions, announcing plans for developing new standards over the next year.
EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said the aim was to better cope with pollution contributing to climate change. “We are following through on our commitment to proceed in a measured and careful way to reduce GHG pollution that threatens the health and welfare of Americans,” Jackson said in a statement. She said emissions from power plants and oil refineries constitute about 40 percent of the greenhouse gas pollution in this country.
President Barack Obama had said two days after the midterm elections that he was disappointed Congress hadn’t acted on legislation achieving the same end, signaling that other options were under consideration.
Jackson’s announcement came on the same day that the administration showed a go-it-alone approach on federal wilderness protection — another major environmental issue. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said his agency was repealing the Bush era’s policy limiting wilderness protection, which was adopted under former Interior Secretary Gale Norton.
On climate change, legislation in Congress putting a limit on heat-trapping greenhouse gases and allowing companies to buy and sell pollution permits under that ceiling — a system known as “cap and trade” — stalled in the Senate earlier this year after narrowly clearing the House. Republicans assailed it as “cap and tax,” arguing that it would raise energy prices. But the Senate in late June rejected by a 53-47 vote a challenge brought by Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski that would have denied the EPA the authority to move ahead with the rules.
Jackson noted in Thursday’s statement by her agency that several state and local governments and environmental groups had sued EPA over the agency’s failure to update or publish new standards for fossil fuel plants and petroleum refineries. The announcement Thursday came in connection with a settlement of the suit the states brought against the EPA.
The EPA also announced Thursday that it was taking the unprecedented step of directly issuing air permits to industries in Texas, citing the state’s unwillingness to comply with greenhouse gas regulations going into effect Jan. 2. EPA officials said they reluctantly were taking over Clean Air Act Permits for greenhouse gas emissions because “officials in Texas have made clear they have no intention of implementing this portion of the federal air permitting program.”
Two days after the midterm elections, Obama served notice that he would look for ways to control global warming pollution other than Congress placing a ceiling on it. “Cap-and-trade was just one way of skinning the cat; it was not the only way,” he said. “I’m going to be looking for other means to address this problem.”
Presidents have, since the days of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, made unilateral decisions arguably outside the scope of their Constitutional power and dared Congress or the Courts to stop them. The practice has increased over time and been made easier by Congress having delegated much of its power to Executive agencies. The consequence is an administrative state where the elected representatives of the people have a mostly reactive role, acting to check these agencies, rather than making affirmative decisions on national policy.