EPA finding gives American negotiators added weight at Copenhagen summit

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a long-awaited finding Monday that greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, cars and other sources threaten human welfare.

The conclusion prods Congress to pass a sweeping emissions law that has stalled in the Senate by paving the way for EPA to regulate the gases under its existing authority.

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It may also give U.S. negotiators more credibility at the international climate summit that began Monday in Copenhagen, Denmark. The EPA signaled that it is intended to do so. “We arrive at the climate talks in Copenhagen with a clear demonstration of our commitment to facing this global challenge,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said Monday afternoon.

“The message to Congress is crystal-clear: Get moving,” said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a chief architect of Senate climate legislation, adding that if Congress doesn’t act, EPA is “more than justified” to move ahead.

EPA’s action, which business groups fear will lead to expensive and complicated rules, suggests it will move forward with mandatory emissions standards on its own if Congress doesn’t back the preferred White House and Democratic approach: a “cap-and-trade” plan that allows polluters to trade emissions permits under a declining nationwide limit.

“Imposed regulations by definition will not include the job protections and investment incentives we are proposing in the Senate today,” added Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The EPA action raises the stakes on Capitol Hill at a time when Democrats are struggling to find 60 votes for a cap-and-trade bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) hopes to move a bill next spring.

The EPA finding stems from a 2007 Supreme Court decision that held EPA has the right to regulate heat-trapping gases if it shows they threaten public health and welfare. It is a precursor to potential regulatory action.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs on Monday deflected questions about whether the finding was timed to coincide with the beginning of the Copenhagen talks, which Obama will attend Dec. 18 for their culmination.

Asked how much the EPA finding would help the U.S. posture at the talks, Gibbs said the finding was set in motion by the high court ruling. “The timing is based on the fact that the first step of this process is being completed,” he said.

EPA’s action is a rebuke to several Capitol Hill Republicans, who in recent days have called on EPA to hold back, citing e-mails hacked from a British research institute that climate skeptics say undercut evidence of human-induced climate change.

Republicans including House Oversight and Government Reform Committee ranking member Darrell Issa (Calif.) and Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, argue EPA should not have moved ahead.

But Jackson disagreed Monday. “There is nothing in the hacked e-mails that undermines the science upon which this decision is based,” she said.

Several major industry groups — including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers — attacked the prospect of EPA regulating under its current Clean Air Act powers, which they say are ill-suited to tackling greenhouse gas emissions.

The Edison Electric Institute, which represents for-profit power companies, called the finding “another reminder that greenhouse gas regulation under the Clean Air Act is a certainty unless Congress crosses the finish line first.”

“The president has expressed his strong preference for federal legislation, as has EPA Administrator Jackson, and we agree. Workable climate legislation is the most effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while protecting consumers,” spokesman Dan Riedinger said.

Two oil-industry groups criticized the EPA action. “This is yet another example of federal policymakers failing to consider the long-term consequences of a regulatory action for consumers and the economy as a whole,” said Charlie Drevna, the president and CEO of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association.

American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard said the plan would lead to “intrusive, inefficient and excessively costly” rules that put the brakes on job growth. He said a new climate law is a better approach.

However, the oil groups have also sharply criticized the main Democratic climate plans, alleging they would deal a body blow to the refining industry and raise consumer costs, among other complaints.

Several environmental groups, meanwhile, cheered the EPA action as a step toward controlling emissions.

Joe Mendelson, global warming policy director for the National Wildlife Federation, said the timing “couldn’t have been better.

“The Obama administration’s action today enforces the Clean Air Act and strengthens the president’s hand for the upcoming talks to forge a global deal to fight climate change,” Mendelson said.

The EPA action is a prerequisite to several steps the agency plans. It will allow EPA and the Transportation Department to complete a joint rulemaking on vehicle mileage and emissions standards.

Also, EPA plans to enact rules next spring that would require emissions controls on new or overhauled stationary sources — such as power plants — that emit more than 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually.

Spring is also when Reid hopes to bring a slow-moving energy and climate bill to the floor. The House passed a climate and energy package in June.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who is working with Kerry on a compromise Senate climate plan, echoed Kerry in calling the EPA announcement a sign that Congress needs to complete a climate bill.

“It is imperative that Congress take action to address climate change so that we avoid the inevitable series of complicated, top-down regulations EPA will draft if we fail to act first,” he said in a prepared statement on Monday.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is working with Kerry and Lieberman, has similarly used the prospect of EPA rules as a selling point for a compromise climate bill, arguing that Congress can set terms that are far more manageable for businesses.

The three are working on a plan that would blend emissions caps with expanded offshore oil-and-gas drilling and greater federal backing for nuclear power.

While the Obama administration wants a cap-and-trade plan as well, Jackson on Monday played down the idea that agency rules will collide in all cases with cap-and-trade. She argued that Monday’s action “complements” legislation.

“I believe it is not either/or. I don’t want anyone to leave here thinking that because we continue our work that I don’t stand firm in my belief that we need legislation,” Jackson said.

“That being said, I also believe quite firmly that there are things that the Clean Air Act allows us to do … that we have already done that pave the way for this country to move smartly, sensibly, with common sense, toward a clean energy future,” she added.

Several Republicans attacked the EPA move. “By granting the EPA the ability to take unilateral action on this issue, the administration is risking further damage to the U.S. economy,” said Sen. David Vitter (La.).

Sam Youngman contributed to this article.