Earlier this summer, the US Court of Appeals seemed to hand the Obama administration a victory by upholding the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) greenhouse gas regulations – and in effect, the agency’s authority to regulate carbon emissions. However, only a few months later the ruling was reversed, with the court stating that the EPA overstepped its mandate in forcing coal-fired power plants to limit emissions from facilities across 28 eastern states under its cross-state air pollution rule.
This latest court ruling, handed down in August, is set to force the EPA to revise the regulation and reduce the burden placed on coal plants. And the upheaval illustrates the ever-widening divide between the two presidential campaigns’ energy policies.
The issue dates back to 2007 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the EPA had authority to regulate greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane under the Clean Air Act if the agency declared them a public danger. In 2009 EPA issued an “endangerment finding” for GHGs, defining carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydroflourocarbons, perflourocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride as air pollutants that cause global climate change, and in turn endanger public health and welfare. It also implemented the so-called ‘tailpipe rule’ which set GHG emission standards for cars and light trucks.
In response, companies and business groups including the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Mining Association and National Association of Manufacturers, as well as the states of Texas and Virginia filed more than 60 lawsuits, claiming that there was too much uncertainty about global warming for the agency to act as it did. However, the court rejected this contention in June, saying the EPA had “substantial record evidence” that greenhouse gases probably caused the climate to warm over the past several decades and was “unambiguously correct” in moving to set limits on industrial and automotive emissions of greenhouse gases.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said, after the ruling in June, that the agency "followed both the science and the law in taking common-sense, reasonable actions to address the very real threat of climate change by limiting greenhouse gas pollution from the largest sources."
The June ruling was perceived as giving the EPA the green light to finalise their national limits on carbon dioxide emissions from newly built power plants and vehicle emission standards. It was cheered by environmental groups and condemned by Republicans and some industry sectors, claiming the regulation was too expensive and stifling job creation.
Now August’s court reversal means any progress on limiting emissions on a national scale is further delayed.
The EPA, with support from environmental groups, had argued the regulation would prevent 30,000 premature deaths per year from respiratory illnesses and improve the health of some 240 million people by reducing sulphur dioxide emissions by 73 per cent and nitrogen oxide by 54 per cent against 2005 levels at coal-fired power plants.
"The court's decision imperils long overdue clean air safeguards for millions of Americans," said Vickie Patton, general counsel of green NGO the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), in a statement. "EDF will immediately seek corrective action to protect the lives of Americans harmed by power plant smokestack pollution."
Power groups welcomed the decision, having said that they could neither meet the deadline or bear the financial burden of installing costly new equipment. The EPA had estimated it would cost $800m (£506m) annually from 2014.
Unlike other industry groups, the automobile industry supports greenhouse gas regulations, saying it is easier to have a common national standard than to leave regulation to individual states.
The Mitt Romney presidential campaign, which claims that regulations are stifling job creation, has pledged to strip the EPA of its authority to regulate emissions should he be elected. Romney’s energy policy is centred on reducing tax breaks for wind energy, opposing environmental regulation and green business, and increased investment in oil and gas. Meanwhile Obama has emphasised his commitment to green technologies and a balanced energy mix that includes renewables, nuclear, coal and gas.