Environmental Law

Getting Rid of Greenhouse Gases

In December 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, pose a threat to human health and welfare.

So What?

This decision now allows the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, factories and major industrial polluters. Greenhouse gases will now be more limited than in previous years.

What Are Greenhouse Gases?

Gases that trap heat in the atmosphere are often called greenhouse gases. Some greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide can occur naturally in the atmosphere and are given off through natural processes and human activities. Other greenhouse gases (such as fluorinated gases) are created only from human activities.

These gases are the primary cause of many dangers including climate change and have been found to endanger the health of the sick and elderly. Also, an increase in greenhouse gases in ground-level ozone pollution has been linked to asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Scientific information shows that as a result of human activities, the amount of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are at record high levels. The earth has been warming over the past 100 years, with the highest increase coming over the next decades. The resulting dangers include:

  • Melting ice in the Arctic
  • Melting glaciers around the world
  • Increasing ocean temperatures
  • Rising sea levels
  • Acidification of the oceans due to excess carbon dioxide
  • Changing precipitation patterns
  • Changing patterns of ecosystems and wildlife

The EPA's finding that greenhouse gases are a danger to public health and welfare will likely lead to new emissions regulations.

How Did This Begin?

The EPA's decision didn't come out of the blue. It's been nearly three years in the making. In April 2007, the Supreme Court heard a case called Massachusetts v. EPA.

There the court decided that the Clean Air Act gives the EPA the authority to regulate the emission of greenhouse gases, but only if they're a threat to human health and welfare. The court directed the EPA to review the latest science on climate change in order to determine whether these gases are in fact dangerous.

Three years ago, under former President George W. Bush, the EPA mostly ignored this question. Some even say that it had buried analyses from its own scientists. When President Barack Obama took office, he directed the new EPA to kick-start the regulation process.

Less than a year later, the EPA came up with its findings and can now regulate greenhouse gases. This is a great example of the government's growing focus on seriously addressing environmental concerns.

What Does This Mean?

The EPA's finding that carbon dioxide endangers public health is the first step toward regulating the gases which cause global warming.

It's not clear what the EPA's decision will mean practically for major emitters. There is likely to be a detailed plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Most likely, legislation will be passed in the form of a carbon limit bill to manage the limits. The House has already passed a bill cap US carbon emissions at 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and the Senate is considering similar legislation.

Power plants and cars will be the first industries regulated. Together, electricity production and transportation account for about half the nation's greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels. Reducing emissions here will result in immediate benefits.

The Challenges

Industry groups have already begun to challenge the EPA's finding. Many business groups and lawmakers fear EPA regulation will place a burden on their industry and the overall economy. Critics say the administration's actions could cost jobs and drive up energy prices. There also is concern that it'll lead to government regulation of office buildings, planes, ships, farms, even cows, which are big methane gas producers.

Nonetheless, as the EPA's latest findings show, greenhouse gases and global warming endangers human health, the environment and our economy. The various industries affected must accept reality and begin reducing greenhouse gas pollution before it's too late.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I live down the street from a factory. How can I get the EPA to regulate their emissions?
  • Can I sue a polluter under the Clean Air Act?
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