by Lisa Heinzerling
This afternoon, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to release its much-anticipated "Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" (ANPRM, in the lingo) discussing the potential for regulation of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. The Washington Post reported this morning that the White House ordered changes in the agency's draft ANPRM, with the effect of lowering the agency's estimates of the benefits of regulating greenhouse gases.
While we await publication of the White House-altered document, it is worth taking a moment to review EPA's unvarnished draft -- the ANPRM as it existed before the White House got its antiregulatory hands on it.
Reading the draft ANPRM (the version dated May 30), one is reminded why we have agencies in the first place. The draft describes the science of climate change, the economics of climate change, and all of the
nooks and crannies of the Clean Air Act that might be used to address
this problem. It is objective and levelheaded, yet also ambitious and
creative. Throughout the draft, EPA appears genuinely interested in
seeking solutions to the problem of climate change rather than finding ways to avoid addressing it. This Administration has done everything it can to hamstring EPA and to belittle its scientific and technical expertise (going so far as to refuse, childishly, to open an email sent to the White House in December, describing EPA's finding that greenhouse gases endanger us), yet somehow, EPA has soldiered on, producing a document that showcases the very expertise the White House has dismissed. If nothing else -- and this is a lot -- EPA's draft ANPRM provides evidence that an eager and capable cadre of experts remains on duty at the agency. The next Administration should take heart in this fact.
The draft ANPRM also contains good news from the perspective of climate regulation. In the May 30 draft, EPA concludes -- specifically focusing on regulation of mobile sources -- that the benefits of regulating greenhouse gases are vastly greater than the costs. According to EPA, regulation of mobile sources would produce $2 trillion in net benefits. EPA even concludes that car owners will, over the lifetime of owning a car, save money if strict controls are put in place. (This is because the regulations EPA has in mind would make cars more fuel efficient.) This should come as good news to everyone, environmentalists and economists alike.
EPA produced this happy economic conclusion using manifestly reasonable assumptions. First, the agency used fuel cost estimates reflecting the current (high) cost of oil. Second, it included as benefits of greenhouse gas regulation the avoidance of adverse effects in other countries. Droughts, heat waves, intense storms, rising sea levels, and the rest affect us here, even if they happen in other countries, both through the workings of the global economy and through our own concern for the welfare of the rest of the world. Third, EPA did not "discount" the future effects of climate change as dramatically as it and other agencies sometimes have done. Discounting is a technique used to reflect the idea that events occurring in the future are not as important as events occurring now. By using a fairly low discount rate, EPA avoided the severe trivialization of the future that often attends use of discounting.
The draft ANPRM is not perfect, of course. One notable shortcoming is its fixation on the effects of climate change on "welfare" rather than health. Under the Clean Air Act, "welfare" is basically defined as everything good (effects on welfare include effects on soils, water, crops, vegetation, manmade materials, animals, wildlife, weather, visibility, climate, property, transportation, economic values, and personal comfort and well-being) except human health. The draft ANPRM gestures toward, but does not emphasize, the effects of climate change on human health. There appears to be no scientific basis for EPA's reticence. Rather, the agency seemed anxious to try to avoid the more constraining legal requirements that flow from a finding of adverse effects on public health.
In context, however, this is a quibble. The draft ANPRM lays out the scientific basis for finding that greenhouse gases pass the "endangerment" threshold of the Clean Air Act. It describes the economic grounds for believing that regulation of greenhouse gases will produce enormous net benefits. And it provides a legal road map for the next Administration to follow when -- hope springs eternal -- EPA finally is freed up to do the job Congress has assigned it to do, which is to protect human health and the environment.
Vice-President Cheney has famously defended this Administration's insistence on secrecy by saying that secrecy is necessary to allow executive officials to provide "unvarnished" advice to the President. EPA's draft ANPRM provided just such candid advice. Yet, as the Post this morning revealed, the White House couldn't handle the truth.