The EPA's power must stay limited

Published on Tuesday, 25 February 2014 21:11 - Written by

The power of the federal government is limited by the U.S. Constitution. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement. But in some quarters, it is. As the Obama administration readies a new slate of power grabs by the Environmental Protection Agency, it has called in former Republican EPA head Christine Todd Whitman to justify its actions.

“The Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to address climate change,” she wrote for Politico.com on Monday. “That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but in some quarters, it is. … As administrator of the EPA from 2001-03, I served in the administration of President George W. Bush. I may sometimes disagree with his successor on the best way to address climate change as a matter of policy, but I absolutely agree that the EPA has broad authority to issue regulations addressing climate change.”

The issue is regulation of “greenhouse gases,” including carbon dioxide. That issue came before the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday.

As Reuters reported, “The nine justices will weigh whether the agency has authority to regulate greenhouse gases under a program for issuing permits for stationary sources of pollution, such as power plants and oil refineries. A decision is expected by the end of June.”

Whitman argues that the government does have such power. Or at least, it should.

“Climate change is the defining environmental challenge of our time, and there are huge consequences for inaction — whether measured in human lives or economic disruption,” she claimed. “Given these stakes, I wish Congress would step up and do its job, refining America’s approach to climate change and expanding the tools at the EPA’s disposal. In previous decades, the EPA could rely upon bipartisan majorities to revise the Clean Air Act and address new and growing air pollution problems directly. Today, gridlock and partisanship make such common-sense action all but impossible. Nevertheless, the Clean Air Act — as written — remains the most powerful tool the EPA has at its disposal to address the issue of climate change.”

Her reasoning, then, goes something like this: Since climate change is so important, and since Congress isn’t doing its job, the EPA must use its “most powerful tool” to address it.

But Daniel Fisher of Forbes points out that the Clean Air Act was never intended to do any such thing.

“Certainly Congress wasn’t thinking of carbon dioxide when it passed the Clean Air Act in 1970,” Fisher writes. “The law was designed to reduce soot, ozone and other pollutants that contributed to smog and breathing problems on the ground. There was a direct relationship between reducing these pollutants and the quality of the air in cities like Los Angeles and New York.”

In fact, when the Clean Air Act was passed, scientists were warning of apocalyptic global cooling. There was even a scientific consensus.

What Whitman and the Obama administration miss is that government’s powers are limited — by design.

They argue that Congress is divided — but that’s a reason for not expanding an agency’s powers.

There’s no justification for the EPA to seize more power.