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EPA Petitioned to Cap Carbon Dioxide Under the Clean Air Act


PacifiCorp's coal-fired power plant in Wyoming emits greenhouse gases. (Photo by Greg Goebel)

WASHINGTON, DC - Two advocacy groups have filed a petition asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set national limits for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. They say there is no need to wait for Congress to pass a law limiting greenhouse gases because the Clean Air Act already contains the comprehensive, science-based, flexible,and immediately available tools necessary to address the climate crisis.

The petition filed Wednesday by the Center for Biological Diversity and seeks to have seven greenhouse gases designated as "criteria" air pollutants and atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) capped at 350 parts per million, the level many scientists say is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of global warming.

Under the Clean Air Act, the groups argue in their petition, "the Obama administration and the EPA have not only the authority, but also the clear legal duty, to take such action as is necessary to set the United States on a course towards reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations below dangerous levels."

"It's time to use our strongest existing tool for reducing greenhouse gas pollution - the Clean Air Act. The Act's provisions should cap carbon pollution at no more than 350 parts per million," said Kassie Siegel, an author of the petition and director of the Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute.

"For four decades, this law has protected the air we breathe," said Siegel, "and it's done that through a proven, successful system of pollution control that saves lives and creates economic benefits vastly exceeding its costs."

"The science, unfortunately, is all too clear - 350 ppm is the most CO2 we can have in the atmosphere if we want a planet similar to the one on which civilization developed," said Bill McKibben, founder of

"Around the world people have rallied around that number," said McKibben, referring to the actions that were staged in thousands of places on October 24 photographing the number 350 to publicize the urgency of keeping CO2 concentrations below that levels.

Ninety-two national governments have endorsed 350 ppm as a target, he said, adding, "Now it's time for the nation that invented environmentalism to use its most progressive set of laws in the same effort."

In April 2009, the EPA formally declared carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases to be pollutants that endanger public health and welfare, clearing the way for the regulation of these gases for the first time in the United States.

The EPA declared then that the "evidence points ineluctably to the conclusion that climate change is upon us as a result of greenhouse gas emissions, that climate changes are already occurring that harm our health and welfare, and that the effects will only worsen over time in the absence of regulatory action."

Critics from industries that emit greenhouse gases and their supporters argue that the EPA should refrain from initiating any regulation that would jump ahead of Congress on global warming. They claim that EPA regulation of greenhouse gases could harm the U.S. economy, eliminate jobs and intrude on citizens' daily activities.

At a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Wednesday, Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican and long-time climate skeptic, asked EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to halt the agency's endangerment finding until investigations over leaked emails showing "collusion" by British scientists "to distort, conceal, and delete" inconvenient climate change data are completed.

Jackson told the committee that the EPA's work on the endangerment finding will continue and that the agency is obligated to continue.

To date, EPA has designated six criteria pollutants: particle pollution (PM), ground-level ozone (O3), carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and lead.

The petition seeks the addition of seven greenhouse gases to the list, including CO2 with a cap of no more than 350 ppm, as well as designation and caps for methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O); hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs); perfluorocarbons (PFCs); sulfur hexafluoride (SF6); and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3).

Last week, in advance of the international climate negotiations in Copenhagen, the Obama administration proposed an greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of 17 percent below 2005 levels.

The groups have calculated that this target is just three percent below 1990 levels by 2020, far below the cuts of approximately 45 percent necessary to get back to 350 ppm. The current atmospheric CO2 level is approximately 385 ppm.

The administration argues that its hands are tied by the weak cap-and-trade bills passed by the House of Representatives and under consideration by the Senate.

Both bills would eliminate the EPA's authority under the Clean Air Act to designate greenhouse gases as criteria air pollutants and to set a cap on such emissions as requested in the petition.

For authority to back their request, the petitioning groups point to the United Nations' climate scientist, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who has endorsed reducing atmospheric concentrations of CO2, the most prevalent greenhouse gas, to no more than 350 ppm. NASA's top climate scientist Dr. James Hansen has long advocated the need to reach 350 ppm.

The groups are worried that the effects of global warming could overwhelm the planet if strong and immediate action is not taken to cut greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

The very first paragraph of their petition warns, "Severe droughts and heat waves, extreme weather events, and other climate disruptions are leaving more than 300,000 people dead per year. Arctic sea ice loss, bleaching of coral reefs, and species extinctions are mounting. At this moment, there can be no reasonable dispute that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare and that concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere already exceed safe levels."

"The Clean Air Act is a bipartisan bill signed by a Republican president. Leading scientists at NASA and around the world say we need to get to 350 ppm," said McKibben. "This petition simply asks EPA to do its job as science, the law, and common sense require."


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