EPA Climate Science Next Target After Pruitt’s Carbon Comments?

Turn to the nation's most objective and informative daily environmental news resource to learn how the United States and key players around the world are responding to the environmental...

By Andrew Childers

The scientific underpinning of the EPA’s greenhouse gas program could be the next target of Administrator Scott Pruitt’s effort to roll back climate change regulations after he downplayed the warming effects of carbon dioxide.

“I think this does sound like he’s likely to go after the endangerment finding,” Joanne Spalding, chief climate counsel to the Sierra Club, told Bloomberg BNA. “The only way he can get the agency out of its obligation to set standards for greenhouse gases is to actually reverse the endangerment finding. But any effort to do so is bound to fail.”

The Sierra Club has received funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by Michael Bloomberg, the majority owner of Bloomberg L.P., parent of Bloomberg BNA.

The EPA in 2009 determined that carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases pose a risk to the environment and human health and therefore should be regulated under the Clean Air Act, kicking off the Obama administration’s efforts to limit emissions from power plants and vehicles.

Undoing that determination would require a significant reversal on the part of the EPA and may be impossible in the face of states moving on their own to address climate change and the 2015 Paris Agreement reached by nearly 200 countries, William Yeatman, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, told Bloomberg BNA.

Carbon Not a ‘Primary Contributor,’ Pruitt Says

Pruitt downplayed the link between carbon dioxide and climate change in a March 9 interview with CNBC, putting himself at odds with the EPA’s own research as well as the wide consensus among climate change scientists.

“No, I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact,” Pruitt said in the interview. “So no, I would not agree that [carbon dioxide is] a primary contributor to the global warming that we see, but we don’t know that yet. We need to continue the debate and we need to continue the review and analysis.”

NASA has said that 97 percent of climate scientists who have published work in the field agree with the conclusion that emissions from human activities are driving warming.

In a subsequent March 9 interview with Bloomberg BNA, Pruitt also said that while the Earth has been warming, there has been a recent “hiatus,” which climate scientists say is nothing more than routine variation in the data even as the larger warming trend continues.

“What he’s doing is a little bit like saying that April 19 is warmer than April 20, so summer isn’t coming,” Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric science professor and co-director of the Lorenz Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Bloomberg BNA.

Emanuel called Pruitt’s comments “puzzling and disturbing” given the scientific consensus around climate change.

Supreme Court Forced EPA Action

Pruitt took office as part of a Trump administration that has vowed to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations, particularly on the fossil fuel industry. But it remains to be seen whether he would attempt to undo the endangerment finding that is the foundation of those rules.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit had upheld the EPA’s endangerment finding and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up that issue, effectively giving the agency’s determination its approval.

Pruitt’s attempt to cast uncertainties about climate change would still not relieve the EPA from its obligation to act, Jack Lienke, a senior attorney at the Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law, told Blomberg BNA. The Supreme Court in 2007 directed the EPA to make a decision on whether greenhouse gases should be regulated under the Clean Air Act.

“If the scientific uncertainty is so profound that it precludes EPA from making a reasoned judgment as to whether greenhouse gases contribute to global warming, EPA must say so,” the court held.

“The court made pretty clear that uncertainty about the magnitude of the effect of climate was not enough not to regulate,” Lienke said.

Pruitt Seeks ‘Tools’

While casting doubt on climate science, Pruitt also has argued that the EPA lacks the legal authority to address climate change using its existing Clean Air Act authority without express direction from Congress.

“So for me, it’s what tools do we have in the tool box, what processes have been provided, has congress spoken?” Pruitt told Bloomberg BNA. “Can EPA address these issues?”

Though the Supreme Court has held that the EPA can regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, seeking new authorizations from Congress to address a problem that is as large in scope as climate change is not unreasonable, Yeatman said.

“There is an natural incentive for the EPA administrator to want Congress to handle this. It is, in fact, a huge lift and the agency doesn’t really have the resources to meet its current nondiscretionary statutory duties,” he said.

Pruitt’s comments drew fire from Gina McCarthy, his predecessor at the agency who oversaw development of the EPA’s greenhouse gas regulations.

“When it comes to climate change, the evidence is robust and overwhelmingly clear that the cost of inaction is unacceptably high,” McCarthy said in a statement. "... I cannot imagine what additional information the administrator might want from scientists for him to understand that.”

—With assistance from Nushin Huq.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Childers in Washington at AChilders@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Try Environment & Energy Report