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Science Back into EPA Assessment of Climate Change Threat

New EPA findings may clear way for greenhouse gas regulation



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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has added dozens of scientific accounts about global warming threats to a key document that is expected to help drive federal regulations for curbing U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases, according to an agency draft [PDF] obtained by Greenwire.

Twenty-eight EPA scientists, engineers and other career employees are now working on a nearly 2-year-old "technical support document" that synthesizes climate research on everything from melting sea ice to forest fires and air pollution.

In the latest 161-page document, dated March 9, EPA officials include several new studies highlighting how a warming planet is likely to mean more intense U.S. heat waves and hurricanes, shifting migration patterns for plants and wildlife, and the possibility of up to a foot of global sea level rise in the next century.

The draft also warns of storm surges and flooding around the planet, especially in vulnerable regions with limited abilities to adapt, including sub-Saharan Africa and Asian mega-deltas in India, Bangladesh and China. "Climate change impacts in certain regions of the world may exacerbate problems that raise humanitarian, trade and national security issues for the U.S.," the draft says.

Notably, the draft includes no authors from the Obama administration. A Bush administration draft [PDF], written last June, listed acting EPA air chief Robert Meyers, a political appointee, among its authors and contributors.

Vickie Patton, a senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund, highlighted the lack of Obama administration appointees among the new draft's authors as an illustration of President Obama's commitment to restoring scientific integrity in the government. Environmentalists constantly criticized the Bush administration's handling of federal science. "The leaked document ... pointedly separates policy and politics from the scientific synthesis," Patton said in an e-mail.

Patton also noticed a disclaimer added to the top of the new report's executive summary that she said underscores the separation between policy and science. It states, "This document itself does not convey any judgment or conclusion regarding the question of whether GHGs may be reasonably anticipated to endanger public health or welfare, as this decision is ultimately left to the judgment of the Administrator."

EPA did not conduct any of its own research for the report. It relied on a raft of published materials, including work by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and a series of 21 studies from the U.S. Climate Change Science Program.

"It stands at the top of a pyramid where a lot of the bricks were laid previously, not only internationally, but by the previous administration that had a different policy view of climate change," said Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton University professor who served as a lead co-author of the 2007 IPCC report. "It's the kind of document you produce if you were trying to establish a national policy."

In Supreme Court ruling's wake


Indeed, the leaked document marks the seventh draft since EPA began compiling information on the welfare and public health effects from global warming in response to a April 2007 Supreme Court decision on global warming.

The court's 5-4 ruling said the Bush administration did not adequately assess the threats from global warming when it rejected a petition from environmental groups and 12 states that sought to force federal greenhouse gas limits on motor vehicles.

President George W. Bush ordered a new EPA review of the climate science, prompting a series of technical staff assessments in support of regulations for greenhouse gas emissions. Documents made public on the federal government's regulatory Web site show that EPA staff summarized the potential benefits [PDF] from curbing emissions, as well as the scientific data on motor vehicles [PDF] and stationary emission sources [PDF] such as power plants.

But the Bush White House ultimately stopped the EPA rulemaking process on climate change and instead punted all of the key decisions to the Obama administration.

According to a different leaked EPA document [PDF] published yesterday in Greenwire, EPA staff are fast-tracking their work responding to the Supreme Court decision in preparation for a mid-April decision from Administrator Lisa Jackson which concludes that greenhouse gases threaten both welfare and public health.

Should Jackson make an affirmative finding as expected, it would prompt a series of EPA rulemakings on climate change dealing with everything from cars to power plants and large manufacturing plants. Jackson also can expect a wave of industry-driven litigation, as well as a push from the Democrat-led Congress to pass legislation pre-empting the EPA rules and instead setting its own mandatory curbs on greenhouse gases.

Jeff Holmstead, the former head of EPA's air office under President George W. Bush, said he found nothing to dispute about the latest EPA document's assessment of the climate science. "There is nothing really surprising here," he said. "It looks like EPA has done a good job of listing all the possible impacts of global climate change."

But Holmstead, now an industry attorney at Bracewell & Giuliani, took issue with shortcomings that he said "are much more important for both legal and practical reasons."

For example, Holmstead referenced a section in the draft that estimates that about 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the U.S. transportation sector.

"But it doesn't even try to say whether regulating these emissions – or even eliminating them entirely – would make any difference when it comes to reducing the possible impacts of climate change," Holmstead said. "It will be much more interesting to see what the agency says when it actually develops a proposed rule to regulate greenhouse gas emissions – and therefore has to estimate the effects of that proposal."

No comment from EPA

Asked for a comment on the leaked document, EPA spokesman Allyn Brooks-LaSure replied, "Our general policy is to not comment on draft or deliberative documents, primarily because those documents are typically incomplete and contain partial thinking and ideas about matters potentially under consideration."

Brooks-LaSure added, "Our fundamental mission is to protect the American people where they work, live, play and learn – and we are considering all options to realize that mission. When we have something official and final to say on this, or any other issue, you will get the first press release."


Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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