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July-August 2010
Vol. 35, No. 4

Climate change: “Dirty Air” act defeated

Despite the recent defeat of Senate Resolution 26 – known as the “Dirty Air” Act by its opponents – its uncomfortably close vote gives evidence of the hold that polluters have over elected officials and of senators’ unflagging resolve to choose “big oil” and “dirty coal” over clean energy and the health and safety of U.S. families. This resolution, advanced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), proposed to cripple the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to use the Clean Air Act to crack down on the U.S.’s biggest polluters and to protect the health and welfare of U.S. citizens from greenhouse gas pollution. Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns intern Mary Gaertner contributed this article.

Read related article.

In 1970, the Clean Air Act (CAA) was signed into law by President Nixon, and subsequently became the U.S.’s most successful air pollution control law. Under the CAA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is charged with identifying and regulating major sources of air pollution. Since 1990, emissions of six common air pollutants (ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and lead) have declined by 41 percent, saving hundreds of thousands of lives and improving the health of U.S. citizens. The CAA also saves money — when the human health, human welfare, and environmental benefits under the CAA were compared to the costs of illness, premature death, decrease in worker productivity, etc., which would have occurred without the passage of the CAA, it was found that the CAA created benefits valued at $22.2 trillion in its first two decades alone, 42 times greater than the actual costs of its regulations.

In 2007, a Supreme Court case (Massachusetts v. EPA, U.S. 497) ruled that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the leading cause of climate change, are air pollutants covered under the CAA and held that the EPA administrator would have to determine whether or not emissions of greenhouse gases from new motor vehicles cause or contribute to air pollution that endangers public health or welfare.

In December 2009, the “endangerment finding” designating GHGs a threat to public health was signed by EPA administrator Lisa Jackson and published in the Federal Register. As stated in the 2007 Supreme Court ruling, the EPA is now required to regulate GHG emissions under the CAA even without passage of climate change legislation. Under this authority, the EPA proposes to focus on only the biggest polluters that have long been subject to similar standards for other pollutants. These regulations will ensure that the largest emitters use the best available technologies to reduce GHG emissions and move to clean energy.

The CAA and the EPA are the United States’ strongest existing tools for reducing carbon pollution, yet several members of the Senate want to disable them. While those supporting the Murkowski resolution argue that it should be up to Congress, and not the EPA, to decide how to regulate climate change, the endangerment finding is one tool the administration holds to pressure lawmakers to pass climate legislation.

Thankfully, the Murkowski resolution was defeated in the Senate by a vote of 53-47, but this is too close of a margin for those seeking meaningful climate change legislation. By voting in favor of the resolution, 47 senators — all 41 Republicans and six Democrats — signaled their discomfort with the administration using federal policy to reduce GHGs. The votes of the six Democrats further demonstrate a margin of mutiny that, if translated to a vote on climate legislation, could spell disaster for the current energy bills under consideration, since 60 votes are needed to pass a climate change bill.

In spite of this small victory over big oil interests, other recently proposed pieces of legislation also aim to disable the CAA. Two of the climate change bills under consideration—the American Clean Energy and Security Act (HR 2454), passed in the House last June, and the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act (APA Act, S. 1733), recently proposed by Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT)—repeal important sections of the CAA and strip the EPA’s authority to set a cap on the permissible amount of carbon pollution. A new bill from Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), co-sponsored by six moderate Democrats, proposes to ban any EPA regulation on GHG emissions for two years; this bill may even garner additional support from those who voted in favor of the Murkowski resolution.

When more than seven out of 10 U.S. citizens support government regulation of greenhouse gases as air pollutants, and when even more (86 percent) say the government should limit business’s emissions of air pollution, the answer is not disabling the only successful tool the U.S. has in place to combat climate change. Sen. Murkowski and her industry lobbyists have been denied their resolution to reverse gains in clean air and public health. But this is not enough. The Senate must move immediately to pass the strongest possible climate legislation. One way forward would be for the Senate to take up the CLEAR Act co-sponsored by Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Susan Collins (R-ME).

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