By Greg Dotson, University of Oregon
Under President Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency was central to these regulations. But new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has said he plans to return the agency to its “core mission” of ensuring clean air and clean water, rather than addressing climate change.
Pruitt has characterized climate change as a recent diversion from EPA’s main mission and has stated that accordingly the Clean Power Plan, an Obama rule to address carbon pollution from power plants, would have to be done away with. Pruitt has also said that carbon dioxide is not the primary contributor to global warming and has appointed former staffers of Sen. James Inhofe, a prominent climate skeptic, to serve under him.
But a look at the history of the EPA shows that work on climate change has long been part of the agency’s mission.
Within a month of the creation of the EPA 46 years ago, President Nixon signed the Clean Air Act of 1970 into law. In that law, Congress gave the new agency the mission to protect the “public health and welfare” from air pollution and specified that “welfare” includes effects on “climate.”
The 1970 Clean Air Act also gave the EPA the authority to regulate emissions from power plants and other large sources. The Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that this language “provides a means to seek limits on emissions of carbon dioxide from domestic power plants.” This is the law the Obama EPA would ultimately rely upon for the landmark Clean Power Plan, which was designed to reduce carbon emissions from power plants.
So EPA has had the mission and the authority to act on climate change for nearly 50 years. While the agency hasn’t moved to regulate greenhouse gases until the last decade, EPA does much more than just issue regulations and enforce them. The agency conducts research, educates the public, runs voluntary programs, creates partnerships, and is a resource for the states and the rest of the federal government. In these areas, the agency has been involved in efforts to protect against the effects of climate change for decades.
For instance, the EPA has supported and produced hundreds of reports and academic journal articles, spanning Republican and Democratic administrations. These have been invaluable in building our understanding of causes, impacts, and potential solutions to climate change.
Over the years presidents of both parties have called on the EPA more explicitly to act on climate change. In 1987, President Reagan signed the Global Climate Protection Act into law, giving the EPA the lead agency role in developing and proposing a “coordinated national policy on global climate change.”
In 1992, President George H. W. Bush negotiated the landmark climate treaty the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Upon reaching the agreement, Bush EPA Administrator Bill Reilly wrote that a number of EPA programs would play “a key role in enabling the United States to meet the goal of the Climate Change Convention: to cut greenhouse gas emissions using a benchmark of 1990 levels.” For example, EPA’s Green Light Program which Reilly had initiated in 1991 gave birth to the Energy Star program in 1992, a voluntary program that helps businesses and individuals protect the climate through energy efficiency.
When the U.S. Senate ratified the Framework Convention in 1992, Senator Mitch McConnell said it was “a fine agreement.” The EPA assumed the duty of preparing the official U.S. Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions to comply with the nation’s commitments under the treaty.
During the Clinton administration, EPA continued to develop and implement voluntary programs to cut greenhouse gas pollution. In 1993, the EPA launched the Natural Gas STAR program to work with industry to limit emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane. The agency also started the Coalbed Methane Outreach Program in 1994 to encourage mine owners and operators to productively capture methane rather than allowing it to escape into the atmosphere. The EPA also ran a suite of environmental stewardship partnership programs to address the most potent greenhouse gases emitted from the aluminum, semiconductor, refrigerant, power, and magnesium industries.
During the George W. Bush administration, EPA continued to conduct research and implement voluntary programs to explicitly address climate change. For example, the Bush II EPA launched the Clean Energy Initiative “with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions” by expanding markets for renewable energy and working with state and local governments to develop policies that favor clean energy.
Broad Reach Consistent with Founding
In an attempted retreat from action, the Bush II EPA argued at one point that the Clean Air Act did not provide the agency with authority to regulate carbon dioxide. The Supreme Court rejected that argument in 2007, finding that the Clean Air Act’s definition of air pollutant unambiguously included greenhouse gases. Importantly, President Bush accepted the court’s ruling and subsequently issued an executive order directing EPA “to protect the environment with respect to greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles.”
EPA did not complete this directive prior to the end of President Bush’s second term. But when the Obama administration finalized the EPA rule in 2010, the agency worked with the auto industry to ease industry concerns even while cutting pollution and saving consumers money.
This broad reach of the EPA’s responsibilities is fully consistent with the principles upon which the agency was founded. When President Nixon created the EPA in 1970, he detailed that in addition to setting and enforcing environmental protection standards, the agency should research adverse effects of pollution, pollution control approaches, and new policies to strengthen environmental protection programs.
Notably, the president stated that EPA’s “broad mandate” would allow the agency to “develop competence in areas of environmental protection that have not previously been given enough attention.”
Obama Pushes Harder
When President Obama assumed office, he urged Congress to pass a law providing additional tools for reducing carbon dioxide pollution. While Congress was willing to provide funding for EPA to take on a host of climate change-related activities, it was unable to pass a comprehensive climate change bill.
When the Republicans took over Congress in 2011, their resistance to climate change hardened. The Republican House attempted and failed to strip greenhouse gas emissions out of the Clean Air Act, leaving EPA’s authority to regulate intact.
Confronted with a Congress that refused to help cut dangerous carbon pollution and with a law that called for action to protect the public health and welfare, President Obama concluded that failure to respond to the threat of climate change would “betray our children and future generations.” Accordingly, he directed EPA to use its authority to regulate carbon emissions from power plants.
As history demonstrates, climate change has been at the heart of EPA’s mission since its creation, and administrations of both parties have moved forward to mitigate this threat — with varying levels of ambition and enthusiasm — for 30 years.