EPA Regulations and Climate

EPA Regulations and Climate Laser Talk

Question:  Why don’t we just regulate CO2 instead of putting a price on it?

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 like CO2 with traditional regulation is a lot harder. Although those gases do pose a legally accepted threat to human health, as confirmed by Massachusetts vs. EPA in 2007, [4] the nature of the threat is different from that posed by other pollutants.

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 would require the issuance of complex regulations for thousands of devices and processes, followed by a lengthy public comment process and many likely court challenges.

Greenhouse gases can’t simply be scrubbed or filtered out of smokestacks like soot or mercury. 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, putting a price on carbon is also less costly to our economy than a collection of regressive regulatory policies, according to a 2011 survey of 40 top economists. [5]

Finally, we can see the pitfall in trying to regulate CO2 through Executive Branch agencies, where regulations can be delayed for years in court and even undone or neglected by a disapproving administration.

For all these reasons, clear, durable legislation that puts a steadily increasing price on fossil carbon, stimulating innovation everywhere, is a better way.

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. 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. “Massachusetts v. EPA.” U.S. Department of Justice (14 May 2015).
  5. “Carbon Tax.” Chicago Booth IGM Forum (20 Dec 2011).

This page was last updated on 05/05/21 at 22:25 CDT.