June 6, 2014 in Opinion

Editorial: Congress’ absence puts need to act on EPA

 

There are three ways for the United States to address global warming: 1) Mandates from the Environmental Protection Agency; 2) an alternative plan from Congress, such as a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system; or 3) nothing.

Because Congress couldn’t settle on No. 2, the nation has accomplished very little. Whether or not you believe human-caused global warming is an urgent concern, it’s clear from extensive scientific research that it is a problem. So the sooner it’s addressed, the easier it will be to make a difference.

Seven in 10 Americans believe this issue merits consideration, according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll. The consensus among climate scientists is even higher.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the EPA is requiring power companies to lower greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent, from 2005 to 2030. We’ve editorialized that it would be better for Congress to come up with a solution, but instead the political divide has widened. In 2008, both presidential candidates touted market-based emissions trading – cap-and-trade – to deal with global warming. In 2009, the House barely passed a bill, but it went no further. The only movement since then has been for the Republican Party to deny there’s a problem and foreclose on all solutions.

Aside from being politically and scientifically wrongheaded, the do-nothing approach is also legally untenable. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide is a “pollutant” and thus is subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act. That’s why the ball is in the EPA’s court. Congress could snatch it, but prefers to blame the agency for “killing jobs.”

Carbon needs a price signal, because the emissions affect everyone. The simplest solution would be a national carbon tax, which puts the onus on everyone to respond: Use less carbon, pay less tax. Consumer reaction would send a clear signal to markets. Conservation practices would surely increase. Plus, taxing carbon would be far less expensive and yield more predictable results than regulatory fiats and bureaucratic oversight.

However, there’s been no political support for a tax. So now each state has targets, and they’ve been given flexibility on how to reach them. The dramatic surge in natural gas production has helped utilities mothball coal-powered plants, which emit more carbon dioxide. But the sudden appearance of a lower-cost fossil fuel has hurt investment in cleaner energy sources, including nuclear, wind and solar.

Washington is in relatively good shape, because of extensive hydropower and state-imposed requirements for alternative energy use. The state’s final coal plant, near Centralia, is set to be phased out by 2025. However, Washington utilities buy power from coal-fired plants in Montana, Wyoming and other Western states. If some of those plants close, the state will need to make up the difference from cleaner sources, or through conservation.

When faced with smog, acid rain and polluted waters, Americans have demonstrated the ingenuity and resolve to act. These new rules provide the catalyst to mobilize again.

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