Running out of time on EPA

Before Congress recessed a few weeks ago, the Senate experienced an Alice in Wonderland-like spectacle: Those who most vehemently opposed Congress addressing climate change pushed to prevent the EPA from addressing climate change because, they argued, Congress should address climate change. Truly an “only in Washington” moment — but if you missed this spectacle the first time around, don’t worry, because it appears there might be a repeat performance this fall.

Now, some of the same forces that took aim at the EPA this summer are pushing another measure — one that would impose a two-year delay on any EPA efforts to reduce pollution from the country’s largest power plants and factories. No doubt we’re going to hear the same complaints about EPA “overreach” and “ambition” that we heard during the July debate. But we’re also likely to hear the new variation that the two-year delay is needed so polluters can have time to get ready for such a regulation.

The excuses are well-trodden territory already: The EPA has moved cautiously and appropriately in developing regulations for greenhouse gas emissions, offering a tailored approach that focuses on the biggest polluters and exempts small businesses like mom-and-pop dry cleaners and pizza parlors. In fact, during the first phase of the program, only new plants or those that are significantly expanding will be required to meet permitting requirements.

This action by EPA is explicitly directed by a Supreme Court decision in 2007 that held that carbon dioxide is a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. Under that landmark piece of legislation, now in its 40th year, EPA has the legal obligation to regulate any pollutant it determines endangers human health and welfare. The Massachusetts v. EPA decision was a watershed moment in the fight against climate change and a wholesale rejection by the Supreme Court of the Bush administration’s argument the EPA had no authority to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

When President Obama entered the White House, he put the urgent challenge of climate change squarely on his agenda. He made it clear that he preferred congressional action to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, and he was a strong partner in our legislative efforts over the past year. But he has always taken an emphatic position that in the absence of legislation, EPA has the legal obligation to protect the public by using its authority to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Make no mistake, this has never been anyone’s preferred option. A legislative solution like the American Power Act would provide the most flexible, consumer-friendly pathway to reduce dangerous greenhouse gas emissions. But instead of passing that legislation or passing even a compromise, narrowed down version, the Senate has wasted the last year arguing about what the EPA could and should be doing. Meanwhile, as Washington ran out the clock, the dramatic impacts of climate change continued unabated.

Quite simply, we can’t wait any longer. We are experiencing what appears to be the hottest year on record in the hottest decade on record. Glaciers are melting faster than expected, contributing to sea-level rise. Carbon pollution is acidifying our oceans, with frightening implications for the entire food chain. Worsening drought conditions are predicted to create widespread “dust bowls.” And a study by the National Academy of Science finds that “…the climate change that is taking place because of increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop.”

It has been hard enough to watch the Senate shirk its responsibility to address this accelerating threat to our security and our economy. We must not, in good conscience, handcuff the EPA from doing what we’ve refused to do. That would be the ultimate abdication of responsibility by the United States Senate on exactly the kind of issue where the framers of the Constitution expected the world’s greatest deliberative body to lead.

Sen. Kerry is the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.