The Environmental Protection Agency this week decided on a long-awaited ruling that greenhouse gas emissions are a public hazard, setting the stage for the nation's first national regulations of carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases. Unlike the carbon cap-and-trade policy you've probably heard that President Obama supports, and which Congress is considering, this would be a regulation under the Clean Air Act, and would not need a Congressional okay. It would affect smokestacks and tailpipes, most likely, in similar ways to current rules controlling pollution that causes acid rain and smog.
For everyday Americans, the benefits of fighting global warming won't be immediate. Scientists tell us that we will see continued warming for decades even if we stopped all pollution today; it's our grandchildren who will benefit from living in a world that isn't catastrophically altered. There will be less disease and more wildlife; sea levels won't have swamped public infrastructure or spawned so many killer storms; California will still be growing wine grapes, and New York will still produce apples and maple syrup.
But this generation will have to sacrifice for that benefit, and the move to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is the beginning of that sacrifice.
When the EPA first proposed its "endangerment finding" back in April, The Daily Green spoke with the Union of Concerned Scientists' Eli Thompson to find out what this impending regulation will likely mean to consumers. Thompson is an automotive policy expert who lobbies Congress and the EPA on environmental issues related to the U.S. auto industry. (While he's a registered lobbyist, he notes that the Union of Concerned Scientists does not spend any money on campaign contributions or other financial incentives to sweeten their policy recommendations ... Or, as Thompson put it: "No expense account.") Here's what he said this spring:
Thompson said that power plants and automobiles will be the first industries to be regulated, according to initial documents filed by the EPA. Together, electricity production and transportation account for about half the nation's greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, so reducing emissions there will result in immediate benefits, he said. Since Thompson's expertise is with cars, we focused our questions there:
No, according to Thompson. The Clean Air Act is set up to regulate so-called "major" sources of pollution, which in this case includes cars, trucks and SUVs...but that does not mean that every manufacturer must produce only plug-in hybrids to avoid breaking the law that the EPA is drafting. Instead, he foresees an "aggressive implementation of conventional technology" -- not including hybrids, plug-in hybrids, electric, hydrogen fuel cell and other advanced technologies.
"With the first round of regulations, through 2020 or 2025, we're talking about taking conventional technology...which for 20 years we've been putting into acceleration, accessories, etc., -- taking that existing technology and putting it toward better fuel economy," he said.
So the days of commercials touting every car's zero-to-60 accelerating power, and the multiple-DVD minivan may be waning, but the internal combustion gas-powered engine will remain the dominant vehicle type for the next 10 or 15 years, by Thompson's estimation. It will be 2040 or 2050 before plug-in hybrids and other advanced technologies dominate the market, he predicted.
Yes and no, according to Thompson.
Yes, the cars will cost more as manufacturers design new more fuel-efficient models and employ new technologies. The sticker price on the lot will be higher. But because the cost of driving the vehicle will decrease, as these fuel-efficient cars allow consumers save at the pump, the monthly cost of car ownership -- factoring in both the additional monthly expense of a more-costly loan, and the reduced monthly expense of fueling up -- should mean a net savings to consumers.
According to Thompson, no. A 2007 Union of Concerned Scientists analysis predicted that boosting fuel economy could create nearly 24,000 jobs in the auto industry. Why? Workers will be needed to design, manufacture and install the new technology that those more fuel-efficient cars will require.
Wrong, Thompson says.
The Clean Air Act will require the widespread use of specific technologies in the automotive and power industries, eliminating waste there, resulting in a steep reduction in emissions from two of the most important contributors to global warming in the U.S. "It doesn't guarantee overall reductions," he said. A Congressional bill to cap and trade carbon is the only thing that could ensure that the overall U.S. contribution to global warming is capped, and over time reduced.
As importantly for consumers, the EPA regulations can drive up the cost of producing power and automobiles, but it doesn't have any power to subsidize the increased costs for consumers. Congress, on the other hand, can implement a comprehensive program that produces revenue from a new carbon market -- for instance -- and doles out some of the windfall to consumers, either in direct tax rebates, or in incentives to make energy efficiency improvements that ultimately will offset the cost of higher energy bills.
Because carbon from burning gasoline isn't the only greenhouse gas produced by automobiles, Thompson said to expect other changes to your driving experience in the coming years. Specifically, the efficiency and chemical makeup of your air conditioner is likely to change. How that could affect cost remains to be seen.
No, according to Thompson. Because of the way the Clean Air Act is written, citizens can't challenge every business they believe is contributing to global warming. It's up to the EPA to define which industries it will regulate, and any challenges to that decision would be decided administratively, rather than through the courts.
The Daily Green has reached out to other experts to discuss other aspects of how carbon regulation will affect regular people. Stay tuned for more.
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