'Carbon Ultimatum' Is Just Respect For The Law

Posted by Wonk Room Mon, 20 Oct 2008 23:29:00 GMT

By Robert M. Sussman, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and former Deputy Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, for the Wonk Room.

smoke_stacks.PNGThe Wall Street Journal’s opinion piece, The Carbon Ultimatum, accuses Barack Obama of planning to unleash the bureaucracy of the Environmental Protection Agency in an effort to “bludgeon” Congress into enacting climate change legislation:

He plans to issue an ultimatum to Congress: Either impose new taxes and limits on carbon that he finds amenable, or the EPA carbon police will be let loose to ravage the countryside.

To support this charge, the Journal points to recent comments by Jason Grumet, an Obama energy advisor: “The EPA is obligated to move forward in the absence of Congressional action. If there’s no action by Congress in those 18 months, I think any responsible president would want to have the regulatory approach.’‘

This opinion piece, which uses the time-honored ploy of opponents of environmental progress of demonizing the EPA and ascribing sinister motives to its political overseers, has two fatal flaws. One, the specter of bureaucrats running amok and strangling the economy – by intruding into small businesses and individual households and banning fuels on which millions of Americans depend – is a fantasy of die-hard free-market zealots. In fact, a new administration could enforce new global warming regulations with common sense, focusing on large emitters of greenhouse gases to achieve reasonable reductions while spurring trillions of dollars worth of economic growth and green-collar jobs.

Second, in its zeal to accuse the EPA workforce of a naked power grab, the Journal ignores the central reason why EPA is part of the climate equation, as even the conservative law professor Jonathan Adler recognizes:
The problem with the WSJ’s narrative is that Grumet is describing nothing more than what is legally required as a consequence of the Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts v. EPA. Under that decision, the EPA is effectively obligated to begin the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. If the law is not amended, and the next Administration fails to act, environmentalist groups will file suit to force their hand – and win.

The Court’s decision came after years of evading climate change by the Bush Administration despite the mounting evidence of rising temperatures and their consequences for our ecosystems and economy. Unfortunately, the EPA remains in default on its fundamental legal responsibilities. EPA’s July Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking – which the Journal describes as as a “roadmap” for blanketing the US economy with onerous regulation – was in fact a further Bush delay. Instead of a scientific “endangerment” analysis, the White House directed EPA to prepare a neutral and non-committal discussion of its legal authority – a stick in the eye of the Supreme Court. They then went further by taking the unprecedented step of belittling and disowning EPA’s technical and legal analysis to score points with its allies in industry and the Republican base.

If anything, allowing EPA to move ahead under the Clean Air Act would be “non-political” because it would honor the terms of a Supreme Court ruling that the outgoing Administration has chosen to defy. How simple respect for the nation’s highest court and the law of the land equates to issuing an “ultimatum” to Congress is baffling.