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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Will Historic Climate Ruling Bring Action?

Air Date: Week of

It's been three months since the landmark Supreme Court decision that EPA can regulate global warming gases from vehicles. So why aren't we doing it? Living on Earth's Jeff Young tells us the effort to control tailpipe greenhouse gases is stuck in the slow lane.


GELLERMAN: Form the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman sitting in for Steve Curwood.

It’s been more than three months since the U.S Supreme Court ruled that the federal government has the power to regulate global warming gases coming out of cars and trucks. So why isn’t Washington doing what the court said? Critics charge the Bush administration is stuck in the slow lane. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports.

YOUNG: Last November Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Riley stood on the steps of the Supreme Court to explain why his state had sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Riley said global warming gases from autos were harming his state.

RILEY: In a situation like that where a pollutant is causing harm to public health and public welfare, the EPA is obligated to deal with that. And that’s all we’re asking that’s all we’re asking: do your jobs, do your jobs.

YOUNG: In April the court issued what many called a historic five-four decision that the EPA had authority to regulate carbon dioxide coming from tailpipes. The Justices essentially agreed with Riley: it was time for the administration to do its job. But what would that job be, exactly? In a speech last month President Bush had an answer.

BUSH: When the Court says something, then the executive branch of government says, okay, you said it, now we'll listen. We'll do what you asked us to do. And so I directed the EPA the departments of transportation, energy and agriculture to take the first steps toward regulations that would cut gasoline consumption and greenhouse gases. We’re moving forward because the Supreme Court told us to move forward.

YOUNG: It still wasn’t clear what action the president had in mind, or when it would happen. It fell to EPA administrator Stephen Johnson to fill in details.

JOHNSON: My goal is to have a proposal on the street by end of the year, with the president’s commitment to have that regulation finalized by end of 2008. That’s a very aggressive schedule particularly for a regulation that’ s very complex.

YOUNG: That doesn’t sound very aggressive to officials from states eager to act on global warming pollution. California senator Barbara Boxer notes that the schedule Johnson describes means there would be no action until just weeks before Bush leaves office.

BOXER: I find it rather amusing that nothing is really going to happen in his term if we follow that timeline. We’re a little worried by that approach because California and many other states are just waiting to act.

YOUNG: California approved a measure to cut tailpipe emissions from new cars and trucks by 30 percent within a decade and about a dozen states want do the same. The Clean Air Act gives California special permission to make its own rules stricter than federal law and then other states with air pollution problems can adopt the California standard. But before any state can put those regulations into place, California must get permission, called a waiver, from the EPA. And the state has been waiting nearly two years. Boxer thinks the President is simply delaying any decision on the waiver.

BOXER: We hope not and I’ve had many conversations with the administrator of EPA, he’s telling me he’ll have an answer by the end of the year. We all think the answer ought to come in weeks, not months.

YOUNG: Now Boxer and fellow Democrats from California and Florida are pushing a bill that would force EPA administrator Johnson to decide on the California waiver by October at the latest. Other members of congress wonder why EPA isn't also looking at controlling carbon dioxide from sources other than vehicles. Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey called Johnson before the new House special committee on global warming, setting up this tense exchange.

MARKEY: Let's put a fine point on this: if it’s a danger, if CO2 is a danger coming from tailpipes would it not also be a danger coming from utilities?

JOHNSON: From a legal standpoint and under the terms of the Clean Air Act that's one of the important questions we're reviewing right now.

MARKEY: A rose is a rose, CO is CO2, Mr. Johnson. That's not a satisfactory answer.

YOUNG: And Johnson faces still other pressure. California attorney general Jerry Brown told the global warming committee that he’ll take the EPA back to court if California is not allowed to proceed.

BROWN: It looks like he is in total stall mode under orders of the president. If that’s true we will sue him. We’re committed to every legal, political activist initiative to get this job done. But of course they can stall and ultimately it’s up to you. We need Congress to settle this problem.

YOUNG: And that may be where the Supreme Court’s global warming decision ends up having its greatest effect, by prodding lawmakers to act. Sierra Club attorney David Bookbinder, who helped craft the climate change suit against EPA, says the decision is already having an effect on Capitol Hill.

BOOKBINDER: The Supreme Court decision has clearly galvanized Congress into action. Congress is very well aware that unless they act the administrative agencies, EPA and state agencies, will begin regulating CO2. So does Congress want to become irrelevant or does it want to step up and create the comprehensive climate legislation?

YOUNG: So even though the Supreme Court’s decision hasn’t yet brought any real action on global warming, it has made the issue impossible for lawmakers to ignore. Congressional Democrats say they will take up a climate change bill this fall.

For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

[MUSIC: Psapp “Calm Down” from ‘Tiger, My Friend’ (The Leaf Label – 2004)]



California Attorney General Jerry Brown on the California waiver for greenhouse gas regulation

EPA administrator Stephen Johnson in a video interview with environmental reporters

An overview of climate cases by Georgetown Law School


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