WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency said Monday that global warming pollution endangered the health and welfare of Americans and must be reduced, a move that seemed timed to signal that the U.S. is serious about joining an international bid to reduce the risks of damaging climate change.
Monday's finding means that the EPA will proceed with preparations to regulate large producers of greenhouse gas emissions. Those rules could take effect if Congress doesn't pass legislation.
Nonetheless, it probably would be years before new EPA rules took effect for existing coal-fired power plants, the main source of heat-trapping gases. The Obama administration prefers to have Congress do that work through a climate and energy law.
The EPA's action follows a 2007 Supreme Court decision that ordered a reluctant Bush administration to determine whether greenhouse gases endanger America's health and welfare. The court ruled that if the EPA found that the pollution was dangerous, it was required under the Clean Air Act to tackle the problem. Monday's announcement was the agency's final decision on this "endangerment finding."
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The decision came as 15,000 people from 192 countries gathered in Copenhagen for the first day of talks aimed at reaching a climate agreement. A major part of the agreement is what countries will pledge to do to reduce emissions. U.S. negotiators plan to point to efforts of all parts of the government, including the EPA, Congress and the Energy Department, as evidence that the U.S. will reduce its share of the heat-trapping gases that accumulate in the atmosphere.
Some opponents of mandatory emissions reductions said the EPA shouldn't have made the announcement until a controversy over leaked e-mails by a group of climate scientists is cleared up. Some excerpts have raised questions about whether scientists were trying to manipulate data or squelch opposing views.
Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the most senior Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in a televised interview Monday that the controversy showed "science basically faked in order to get an outcome those individuals wanted."
Issa wrote to EPA chief Lisa Jackson last week saying the EPA should investigate the disclosure of the e-mails from scientists working through the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in England. He argued that the agency shouldn't make a decision on greenhouse gases until it can "demonstrate that the science . . . has not been compromised."
Issa wrote that the e-mails raise questions about the accuracy of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. That report found that warming was "unequivocal" and primarily the result of human activities, mostly from the burning of fossil fuels.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute said it would sue to get the endangerment finding overturned on the grounds that the EPA ignored issues raised in what it calls Climategate. The institute is a policy group that advocates small government and runs a blog that argues that climate change isn't a serious problem.
Jackson said the large amount of scientific work on climate change over the last three decades was "unassailable." Hundreds of scientists have reviewed the findings that make up this work, she said.
"You're talking about one tiny thread out of thousands of threads of scientific data and information," Jackson said, responding to questions about the e-mail controversy at a news conference.
Scientists have found an increase of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere that's upsetting the natural balance and changing the climate, Jackson said. How quickly future changes will occur isn't known, "but the overwhelming amount of scientific studies shows the threat is real, as does the evidence before our eyes."
Environmental groups welcomed the EPA's action.
"After years of industry opposition, President Obama's Environmental Protection Agency ruling today sets the stage for strong federal action to address climate change, and sends an important signal as the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen begins that the president can act regardless of congressional inaction to seriously cut greenhouse gases," Greenpeace said in a statement.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who's leading a Senate effort to get votes for a climate and energy bill, said the message to Congress "was crystal clear: Get moving."
Kerry also said the EPA decision was "a clear message to Copenhagen of the Obama administration's commitment to address global climate change."
The agency's decision on greenhouse gas dangers paves the way for two rules next year:
_ First, the EPA will require reductions of carbon dioxide from vehicles in March. That plan was worked out with automakers earlier this year. It sets a national auto-emissions standard similar to what California and other states have adopted.
_ Second, the agency will require large producers of heat-trapping gases to use the best means available to reduce them when they build new plants or make major modifications.
The EPA hasn't yet said what the best available technology will be. Jackson noted, however, that the agency wouldn't require industries to use technology that doesn't yet exist.
There's no simple gadget to get rid of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.
A system to capture and bury it is many years from commercial use. Emissions also can be reduced through efficiency or a switch from coal to less carbon-intensive fuels.
Jackson said EPA rules wouldn't affect small businesses, only large sources that emit at least 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year.
TIMELINE LEADING TO EPA DECISION:
1999: The International Center for Technology Assessment, a nonprofit bipartisan group, and other organizations petition the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide from new vehicles.
2003: The Bush administration denies the petition.
April 2007: The Supreme Court rules in Massachusetts vs. the Environmental Protection Agency that the EPA must determine whether global warming pollutants from motor vehicles endanger public health and welfare.
December 2007: The EPA in the Bush administration prepares a finding but doesn't release it publicly.
April 2009: The EPA under the Obama administration releases its proposed findings. After a review process, it's announced Monday that the finding is final.
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