EPA Regulations and Climate

EPA Regulations and Climate Laser Talk

Question: Where do things stand now with cutting CO2 through regulations?

Answer:  Environmental regulations are effective in controlling many kinds of pollution. For example, the phaseout of lead in gasoline, [1] the acid rain program, [2] and control of mercury and other air toxics from power plants [3] have returned far more in health benefits than they have cost.

However, controlling greenhouse gases (GHG) like CO2 under the Clean Air Act [4] has always been tricky, and now has become even harder. Although the 2007 Supreme Court decision Massachusetts v. EPA, [5] allowed CO2 to be categorized as an air pollutant, the scope of that authority has been severely curtailed in the 2022 West Virginia v. EPA decision. [6]

This underscores the necessity to address GHG emissions through new, unambiguous legislation. CO2 comes from such a huge variety of sources, from the largest coal-fired power plant to your neighbor’s leaf blower, that controlling them like other air pollutants would be a daunting task even if it weren’t for the limitations now imposed by the Court. Greenhouse gases can’t simply be scrubbed or filtered out of every single emissions source. Cutting them requires a fundamental overhaul of our energy systems, with many different solutions to suit different regional and local economies, resources, and geography.

To achieve this, passing legislation to put a nationwide price on carbon would not run afoul of the Supreme Court ruling and would also be less costly to our economy than a collection of regulatory policies, according to a 2011 survey of 40 top economists. [7]

For all these reasons, clear, durable legislation that puts a steadily increasing price on fossil carbon, stimulating innovation everywhere, is the right way to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

In a Nutshell: EPA regulations work well for many pollutants, but greenhouse gases can’t simply be scrubbed or filtered out of smokestacks like soot or mercury. Besides, the Supreme Court has now essentially closed the door on system-wide CO2 regulation under the Clean Air Act. A fundamental, legally robust overhaul of our energy system is required, which scientists and economists agree can best be achieved by putting a steadily increasing price on fossil carbon.

  1. “EPA’s Use of Benefit-Cost Analysis: 1981-1986.” U.S. EPA Report EPA-230-05-87-028 (Aug 1987).
  2. Chestnut, L.G. and D.M. Mills. “A fresh look at the benefits and costs of the US acid rain program.”  Mgmt77:3, 252-266 (Nov 2005).
  3. “Mercury and Air Toxics Standards: Healthier Americans.” U.S EPA (accessed 21 May 2018).
  4. “Clean Air Act (United States).” Wikipedia (accessed 3 Jul 2022).
  5. “Massachusetts v. EPA.” U.S. Department of Justice (14 May 2015).
  6. “West Virginia v. EPA.” Wikipedia (accessed 3 Jul 2022).
  7. “Carbon Tax.” Chicago Booth IGM Forum (20 Dec 2011).

This page was last updated on 07/09/22 at 22:16 CDT.