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regulators, mount up!
maybe i should just stop reading the news
by adam kraemer (@DryWryBred)
4.6.07
tech


As I perused the New York Times online for Tuesday, Apr. 3, I came across a front-page story regarding the Supreme Court's decision that the Environmental Protection Agency "has the authority to regulate heat-trapping gases in automobile emissions. The court further ruled that the agency could not sidestep its authority to regulate the greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate change unless it could provide a scientific basis for its refusal."

So let me get this straight. The Court has ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency can, in effect, do its job?

Well, that makes sense.

Except that it means that someone (or someones) were actually arguing that the EPA should not be responsible for regulating greenhouse gases.

Including, I discovered as I read on, four out of the nine Justices.

And the administration.

And, it seems, the EPA itself, because the court was forced to rule that the EPA could not simply provide a "laundry list" of reasons not to regulate. Which means that's what they were apparently trying to do.

Moreover, according to the Times, in his text of the majority opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens said the only way the agency could "avoid taking further action" now was "if it determines that greenhouse gases do not contribute to climate change" or provides a good explanation why it cannot or will not find out whether they do.

So let me get this straight. The Environmental Protection Agency pretty much had to be strong-armed by the plaintiffs (in this case, Massachusetts, representing a coalition of states, cities, and environmental groups) into doing something about global warming.

Now, if you're anything like me, this might be the point at which you're saying, "Huh?" Because I did. And then I re-read the story. And still said, "Huh?" Because -- and I'm not in possession of a trained legal mind, but I think I get the gist of it -- it looks to me like the state of Massachusetts just had to sue the Environmental Protection Agency because the agency refused to regulate greenhouse gases.

And I re-read it again. And I even read the Court's actual decisions.

And it still seemed that way.

And I'm still left scratching my head.

Now I'm no tree-hugger. Sure, I'm concerned about the environment, but I do drive cars. I eat meat. I wear things made from animals. I use things made from plastics. I don't always recycle my soda cans or cereal boxes. I like to make whales cry with a cunning combination of rumor and invective.

But how absolutely absurd is it that the current incarnation of the Environmental Protection Agency was actually hauled into court and proceeded to argue against protecting the environment?

Okay, now, if I can get a little technical for a moment, in the interest of fairness, one main point that the dissenting Justices made was in regards to whether or not the plaintiffs actually had the right to bring suit against the EPA. I don't claim to know the ins and outs of legal standing requirements. Maybe they had a point.

But it doesn't change the focus of the case itself, which basically seems to be Massachusetts saying to the EPA, "You have to regulate vehicular greenhouse gases," and the EPA saying, "Nuh-uh."

Well, yeah, you do.

Maybe I'd be willing to accept their argument if they were called something like "The Environmental Obvservation Agency." Then their mandate, it would seem, would be to observe the environment. "Hey, look -- there's a hole in the ozone layer. Someone should do something about that." However, when one starts using the word "protection," it really seems sort of obvious that their mandate is to, well, protect.

This is a point on which the EPA seems not to agree. In addition to their claim that they aren't responsible for regulating tailpipe emissions, they have also refused to address carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Apparently, they claim that the Administration's handling that job and they don't want to get in the way.

(By "handling that job," I might add, I mean the administration reinterpreted the rules to allow power plants to replace up to 20% of their facility each year without meeting current environmental standards. The EPA, in effect, gave the green light to industrial companies to fully replace their old plants in five years at their old pollution levels. Yeah.)

As Justice Stevens noted in the majority opinion, "Prior to the order that provoked this litigation, EPA had never disavowed the authority to regulate greenhouse gases, and in 1998 it in fact affirmed that it had such authority."

I do know there is a lot more to the story than this -- Massachusetts' claim that rising ocean levels are encroaching on their sovereign land, the question as to the extent of greenhouse gas effects on global warming, the fact that the EPA did an about-face on carbon dioxide regulation right about the time the Bush administration told them to (it was an administration lawyer who argued the case in November), the weird legality of a state suing a government agency -- but I keep coming back to that word: protection.

All legal flim-flam aside -- and Justice Scalia's claim that "regulating the buildup of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the upper reaches of the atmosphere ... is not akin to regulating the concentration of some substance that is polluting the air" (his italics, not mine) is just that -- I am still in a state of disbelief that it had to come to this. I am floored that the federal agency imbued with the power to protect the environment has chosen, strangely, to limit its scope. I am even a little surprised that the Court's vote was so close. It goes against common sense, in my book.

In the end, beyond the fact that a Supreme Court Justice today was required to define the word "air" (and did kind of a flimsy job, in my mind), I feel like I keep waiting for a bigger punchline. Tune in tonight and see. Maybe the head of the EPA will simply hold a press conference and say, "No, we were just joking, folks. Of course we're gonna do something about this climate change stuff. After all, we're the Environmental Protection Agency."

But probably not.


ABOUT ADAM KRAEMER

A native of Elkins Park, PA, Adam Kraemer spends way too much of his time repeating "K-R-A-E..." He moved to New York City in 1998 and earned Master's in Journalism at NYU; don't let his writing fool you. He feels he is best known for saying the things no one is thinking, but afterwards wish they had been. He spends his free time wondering where all his free time goes and why he can never come up with a decent kicker for the ends of his articles.

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COMMENTS

tracey kelley
4.6.07 @ 11:46a

Your "Young Guns" title really threw me.

Of course, perhaps I should be more frightened of myself. That Sutherland jones, it goes way back.

I have little faith in most government agencies these days.



sandra thompson
4.6.07 @ 4:32p

Politics and science do not mix well. We need to demand that scientists have total freedom to do science stuff without directions or mandates from politicans, even if they ARE living in the white house.

dan gonzalez
4.8.07 @ 12:57a

Obviously they were trying to cover for the fact that they are intentionally looking the other way while Bush powers up his steerable hurricane machine for another season of evil right-wing reckoning! MORE CARBON IN THE STRATOSPHERE! SAN FRANCISO IS NEXT BITCHES!

I agree about politics and science, so I have to wonder why we're not more alarmed that political beasts like the UN and the EU are in the driver's seat and that the Union of Concerned Scientists is run by a guy with a phd in 'Political Science', and obvious semantic abomination.

The fact is, or was I guess, C02 is NOT a pollutant. That's all the EPA was saying, and they were inarguably correct, but fuck it, we'll always immediately change existing law for political correction.

So if zealots, and a few overly ambitious state shysters, think the EPA can feasibly make a difference in what happens in the upper reaches of our atmosphere, sure, pile it on the EPA, but I, for one, am not getting my hopes up.

The EPA isn't going to make a dent in the supposed climate crises any more than tripling education spending in the last 30 years fixed education. On the contrary, we seem to have gotten measurably stupider.

So we're stupid enough now to believe that carbon can be globally regulated, despite the fact that Europe has been kind enough to demonstrate exactly what happens when we try.

Maybe we should check to see what China is doing about the environment. Oh yeah, absolutely nothing aside from laughing their asses off at us now that the day they can cash in all their US Treasury notes just got so much closer...

adam kraemer
4.9.07 @ 10:40a

No, you're right, Dan. Obviously, if no one else is doing anything about CO2 levels, then we shouldn't, either.

I'd like to see you apply that argument to child labor or kiddie porn.

The argument that curbing emissions will harm our economy unless everyone else in on board is both very short-sighted and very selfish.

Here's more fodder for the debate.

[edited]

lisa r
4.9.07 @ 9:10p

Here's some food for thought:

The major greenhouse gas is CO2. One of the largest contributors to CO2 levels is the continued destruction of plant life in large quantities, throwing off the balance in the carbon cycle.

In the carbon cycle, CO2 in the air is absorbed by plants and converted via photosynthesis into sugars. Small quantities also become dissolved in bodies of water as a natural course of interaction of air with water where it interfaces. However, there are many more sources for CO2 to enter the air than there are for it to leave the air: respiration by plants and animals, decomposition of organic matter, release from water, combustion of organic matter (wood, petroleum, coal and peat), wildfires, and volcanic eruptions.

The only things the EPA is able to regulate are vehicular emissions, and corporate and residential combustion sources. Even if they enact stricter controls on those things here, it's just a drop in the bucket.

They can't control CO2 release from those sources from other countries such as China, and other countries with large vehicular numbers. They can't control emissions that result from cooking and heating fires in third world countries. They can't control the slash and cultivation practices in those countries, either--which not only add CO2 to the air through the combustion process but reduce the plant life available to absorb CO2.

And most importantly, they can do nothing in this country to rein in the rampant conversion of green spaces such as farmland into high-density housing and office developments.

This is important, because even though people link greenhouse gases to global warming, they are conveniently ignoring the fact that plants keep the earth cool by shading the soil and by absorbing the energy from the sunlight. Concrete, buildings, and asphalt absorb heat from the sun and release it back into the atmosphere, making cities hotter and the global atmosphere warmer as well.

Control of building is the responsibility of local and state government, not the EPA.

What we need is a Supreme Court populated with scientists, rather than lawyers--but I'm not holding my breath.

[edited]

adam kraemer
4.10.07 @ 11:22a

Well, okay, all of that is true. But I feel like the "drop in the bucket" argument against the EPA regulating emissions is fairly specious.

Sure, they can't control those other things, but I fail to see where that translates into "they shouldn't do anything."

Rather than a "drop in the bucket" mentality, I'd rather adopt a "every little bit helps" mentality. I mean, by your argument, the US should remove quotas on whaling because there are other countries that ignore international agreements.

tracey kelley
4.10.07 @ 6:50p

I think Lisa has a point in that the onus of regulation can't fall on the EPA alone.

-If builders don't see the value of maintaining greenspace, they're part of the problem.

-If farmers don't control/convert animal waste in an efficient manner, they're part of the problem.

You're right, Adam, in that the "every little bit helps" mentality is a good course of action. If one person saves 10 gallons of water today, what if 100 people do? 1,000 people?

But if these other business units fail to partner with or welcome input from the EPA as to how environmental standards can be upheld, the EPA can only achieve so much.

lisa r
4.11.07 @ 1:18a

I didn't say that the EPA shouldn't do anything. What I'm trying to point out with the mini lesson on the carbon cycle is that a significant portion of the global warming debaters have tunnel vision. They focus on one or two things, such as vehicular emissions or livestock methane production, without really understanding the carbon cycle.

The EPA might employ scientists, but it's run by politicians, and ultimately answers to politicians when it comes to policy. Politicians don't know diddly-squat about the carbon cycle and could not care less.

Want to make a little difference of your own in this regard? The next time you buy a house, avoid new housing developments, especially those with huge houses on tiny lots. Buy an older home and renovate it to your taste. It might be more expensive than buying new, but you'll have done something nice for the environment.

[edited]

jay gross
4.19.07 @ 10:02a

Constitutional Law is an interpretation of Governmental organization and Individual rights. The EPA was formed outside of those Constitutional legalities. Therefore Massachussetts has no rights under the Constitution to sue the EPA. States are not given that right. However, if it can be proved that an individual or group of individuals was harmed or if their Constitutional rights were taken away by some kind of 'environmental hazzard' then they can sue.

Bush; "1. It has not been proven to my satisfaction that CO2 is causing global warming. 2. Global warming 'may be' a hoax perpetrated by Democratic rogue scientists. 3. We should try to become more energy efficient by using Ethenol even though it produces as much or more CO2. 4. The EPA is doing a fantastic job and I support them along with the newly reorganized FEMA."



adam kraemer
4.22.07 @ 9:12p

Well, as I said, Massachusetts wasn't the only defendent.



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