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Regulatory Highs and Lows of 2009: ‘The Adults Are Back in Charge’

Climate Justice


CPRBlog asked some of our regular bloggers to give us some suggestions for the high and low points of the regulatory year. We began by taking the Bush Administration’s “midnight regulations” off the table, so that we could focus in on the Obama Administration’s impact to date. CPR President Rena Steinzor begins.

The high point of the year on the regulatory front was EPA’s endangerment finding on climate change, issued December 7, 2009, finally giving the seventh day of December a positive symbolic role in history, beyond the more memorable one as a day that will “live in infamy.” We endured eight solid years of stonewalling by the Bush Administration on climate change – a saga that included everything from suppressing EPA reports because the facts were inconvenient, to the downright juvenile step of refusing to open an email from EPA because it contained a finding that climate change pollutants must be controlled. Now, finally, the adults are back in charge. The Obama EPA issued a formal finding on the topic, concluding what any schoolchild knows: that greenhouse gases threaten public health, and that motor vehicles are a cause. Having so concluded, EPA can now proceed to regulate emissions under the Clean Air Act. And although many believe the principal impact of the finding is to ratchet up pressure on opponents of climate change legislation by forcing them to choose between aggressive EPA regulation and a climate change bill they’d rather not pass, the plain fact is that EPA intends to keep this regulatory train on the tracks, working toward issuing regulations that would finally get the federal government in the business of combating climate change. Read Dan Farber’s contemporaneous CPRBlog entry on the subject for more.

In my view, the regulatory low point of the year, excluding the Bush midnight regs, was the announcement that regulation on mercury won’t see the light of day until 2011 – fully 21 years after Congress, in the 1990 Clean Air Act instructed EPA to determine by 1994 whether mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants needed regulating. To make a very long story short, a combination of factors conspired to slooooow the process down, including less than alacritous action by the Clinton Administration in the 1990s, delaying tactics by industry, and Bush Administration sandbagging. The cost of delay has been profound. About one in ten American women of childbearing age have unsafe blood mercury levels, a figure that runs much higher in the minority community. And according to data from two studies, strict regulation of mercury emissions from U.S. power plants could spare around 94,000 American newborns from elevated blood levels that can cause irreversible brain damage. Once the Obama Administration got hold of the reins, it moved to settle a lawsuit with environmental groups seeking to force it to regulate. The result is the promise of a 2011 regulation. But just think how many children have suffered brain damage over the course of this two-decades-long fight. Read more of the brutal details of the mercury saga in CPR’s 2009 report, The Hidden Human and Environmental Costs of Regulatory Delay.

In the second week of January, CPR will issue a report card evaluating the regulatory efforts of the “protector agencies” during the Obama Administration’s first year in office. Watch this space for more.

Climate Justice

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