Health advocates urge EPA regulation of greenhouse gases

Labeling climate change "a serious public health issue," more than 100 leading health advocates called on Washington policymakers this week to allow the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

The advocates — including 18 national public health organizations, 66 state-based groups and dozens of individual medical experts — urged lawmakers to "recognize the threat to public health posed by climate change and to support measures that will reduce these risks."

"In order to prepare for changes already under way, it is essential to strengthen our public health system so it is able to protect our communities from the health effects of heat waves, wildfires, floods, droughts, infectious diseases, and other events," the advocates wrote Tuesday to House, Senate and White House policymakers. "But we must also address the root of the problem, which means reducing the emissions that contribute to climate change."

Endorsing the letter were the American College of Preventive Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Lung Association and the American Medical Association, among a long list of others.

The letter is part of a wider campaign to protect EPA’s power to regulate greenhouse gases, which has become a top priority for environmentalists now that broad climate change legislation has collapsed.

Green groups and public health advocates are fighting Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s (D-W.Va.) bill that would delay looming emissions rules for power plants, refineries and other industrial facilities for two years. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has signaled his intent to bring up Rockefeller’s bill this year.

In a 2007 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases qualify as pollutants under the Clean Air Act, empowering the EPA to regulate carbon emissions from vehicles, power plants and a host of other sources.

The Obama administration has signaled its intent to do just that, but the idea has run into a buzzsaw of criticism on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers of both parties say the move would hike energy costs and destroy jobs. Republicans and Democrats representing fossil-fuel-heavy regions have been particular opposed to the concept.

"Unfortunately, the Obama EPA favors bureaucracy and heavy-handed intervention more than jobs and growth," reads the draft version of a new report compiled by Sen. Jim Inhofe (Okla.), senior Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, Greenwire reported Tuesday. "[O]utmoded provisions of the [Clean Air Act] are no longer tools to achieve clean air, but blunt instruments for EPA to enact anti-industrial policies."

The health advocates have a decidedly different take, arguing that human health concerns should be the first priority of policymakers. With that in mind, the groups wrote, lawmakers should oppose "any efforts to weaken, delay or block the EPA from protecting the public’s health from these risks."

The health advocates are also pushing Congress to return its focus to climate legislation, including "strong provisions to protect public health adequately and appropriately."

This post was updated at 6:05 pm. Ben Geman contributed.