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World News

U.S. EPA to move on emissions as Congress stalls

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will formally declare that greenhouse gases endanger human health on Monday, allowing President Barack Obama to show his commitment to act as a major climate change summit opened in Copenhagen.

A finished wind turbine complex is shown in southern Wyoming on in this July 21, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Ed Stoddard/Files

The ruling by the EPA, which was widely expected after it issued a preliminary finding earlier this year, will allow the agency to regulate planet-warming gases even without legislation in the U.S. Congress.

It will also inject some optimism into the two-week global meeting on controlling climate change in the Danish capital.

Business groups said the move, which could allow regulation of gases from vehicle tailpipes or smokestacks, would hurt the economy and jobs just as the country is emerging from a deep recession.

They say the regulatory route could be even more damaging than legislation, mainly because they have less influence over the EPA than over Congress.

But U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the decision would ultimately benefit American industry.

“We will live in a carbon-constrained cooperative world,” Chu told CNBC. “And the United States has the ability to lead in creating these new technologies that can give us the energy we need with the low carbon emissions, or we can follow. If we lead, that will add to our economic prosperity.”

The EPA said it would make the announcement, which had been expected to come around the end of the year, at 1:15 p.m. EST (1815 GMT). It applies to six gases scientists say contribute to global warming, including the main one, carbon dioxide.

FIGHTING CLIMATE CHANGE

Obama, who has made fighting climate change one of his top priorities, plans to attend the U.N. conference late next week, but there had been fears he would arrive almost empty handed as climate legislation has stalled in Congress.

“The EPA move strengthens Obama’s hand at Copenhagen,” said Joe Mendelson, global warming policy director at the National Wildlife Federation. “It gives him additional authority that if Congress doesn’t pass climate legislation the agency can put the country on the path to meet his climate goals.”

Obama will pledge at Copenhagen that the United States, the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, will cut emissions by roughly 17 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels.

World leaders hope to come to a political agreement at the meeting on getting rich and developing countries to share the burden in fighting climate change.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told Reuters last month the endangerment finding was being considered by the White House and the agency was hoping for an expedited review.

The Obama administration has always said it prefers legislation over action by the EPA.

But to prod business to support efforts in Congress, and to show the world Washington is taking action on climate change, the administration has also pressed the EPA to take early steps on regulating greenhouse gases.

The EPA decision does not preclude legislation. Any new regulations could take a long time to implement, giving Congress room to act.

If the EPA was to act alone it also would likely face a slew of legal challenges, including from business groups who say the action would overstep the administration’s authority as well as from environmentalists who seek stronger steps.

SENATE CLIMATE BILL

The climate bill has been delayed in the Senate by a debate over a sweeping reform of U.S. healthcare, but lawmakers hope to pass a bill in the spring. Climate legislation passed narrowly in the House of Representatives in June.

One business group was quick to criticize the EPA for endangering the U.S. economic recovery.

“EPA is moving forward with an agenda that will put additional burdens on manufacturers, cost jobs and drive up the price of energy,” said Keith McCoy, Vice President of Energy and Resources Policy at the National Association of Manufacturers.

Along with its final endangerment finding, the EPA also sent the Office of Management and Budget the agency’s final finding on whether cars and trucks “cause or contribute to that pollution,” Jackson said last month.

That ruling could significant implications for the country’s struggling auto sector.

Jackson said the government was facing a “hard deadline” of next March to let automakers know of any required increases in fuel economy standards that would affect vehicles built for the 2012 model year.

She said the EPA received more than 300,000 comments on its initial proposed public health endangerment and vehicle pollution findings that were issued last April.

Any final endangerment finding would be open for public review.

Reporting by Timothy Gardner and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Simon Denyer and David Storey

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