In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that if the EPA determined that carbon dioxide emissions threaten public health by changing the climate, the EPA would need to regulate that carbon pollution. In 2009, it completed its assessment, determining that yes, carbon pollution endangers public health. This conclusion is known as the “endangerment finding,” and it’s the White Whale of climate denial.
While Trump’s EPA hasn’t directly attacked it (yet), a paper published in Science last week shows that in the decade since the initial finding, the evidence supporting it has only mounted higher. Not only has the science solidified around issues of public health and sea level rise, but this new report also adds economic concerns, ocean acidification, violence and national security to the list of ways climate change endangers the public.
This is perhaps one reason why the Administration has so far held off on mounting a full assault, and is instead tinkering with ways to tone it down. For example, the recent proposal to replace Obama-era standards for greenhouse gas emissions from new and modified power plants with less stringent ones included an important footnote.
While this is pretty much a run of the mill rollback of Obama’s so-called “onerous regulations”, it’s somewhat noteworthy EPA air chief Bill Wehrum apparently didn’t see the irony in saying in an official press release that the EPA has a duty to protect people’s health, and then in the next sentence saying coal-fired power plants will continue to be a part of the country’s future. By the EPA’s own admission, new coal regulations will cause thousands of additional deaths each year by 2030 and tens of thousands of respiratory problems and exacerbated asthma. Trump’s EPA even admits Trump’s pro-pollution agenda is deadly, a tacit admission in support of the endangerment finding.
Buried deep in the paper in a footnote, the EPA calls for input on the 2009 determination that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare, aka the endangerment finding. Seems the agency isn't seeking comment on whether these emissions are harmful, but rather on the “correctness of the EPA’s interpretations” of the finding.
While some are skeptical that this is enough to actually jeopardize the finding, others think it could lead to a slow erosion of its strength. Specifically, the footnote mentions two ways in which the EPA is considering changing its traditional interpreted of the finding.
First off, it questions whether the agency needs to have a separate endangerment finding for each specific pollutant. The Obama EPA considered this issue and decided that as long as a sector was already listed as a polluter under the Clean Air Act, that sector could be regulated. If this decision were to change, according to Romany Webb at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, the consequence would be to “add another step to the regulatory process” which “could significantly slow things down.”
Second, the footnote questions whether the EPA can regulate CO2 emissions from new coal-fired power plants given that few if any are projected to be built. Basically, it asks whether emissions from this sector can be considered “significant”. Wehrum doubled down on this line of thinking an interview earlier this month with Bloomberg Environment, explicitly stating that he thinks there needs to be a threshold that pollutants have to pass in order to be considered a “significant contributor”.
In that interview, Wehrum questioned whether the oil and gas sector emits enough methane to qualify as a significant contribution, relevant because they’re attempting to loosen methane regulations. He also insinuated that there is uncertainty when it comes to whether methane emissions pose a threat to human health -- which there most certainly is not.
Both of these lines of reasoning match up with the Trump administration’s proposed changes to the interpretation of the endangerment finding, showing just how dangerous it could be when polluters are given free reign to start methane around with regulationth.
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