Biden administration launches powerful climate regulatory tool

Biden administration launches powerful climate regulatory tool

The Biden administration’s crackdown on methane leaks from oil wells relies in part on a powerful new policy tool that could strengthen its legal authority to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the country. economy, including those of cars, power plants, factories and oil refineries.

The new limits on methane, announced Saturday by the Environmental Protection Agency during the COP28 climate negotiations in Dubai, target only one source of pollution linked to global warming. Methane, released from oil and gas drilling sites, is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to warming the atmosphere in the short term.

But in the language of the methane rule, EPA economists have embarked on a controversial calculation that would give the government legal authority to aggressively limit global warming pollution from nearly all smokestacks and exhaust pipes of the country.

This figure, known as the “social cost of carbon,” has been used since the Obama administration to calculate the damage caused to the economy by a ton of carbon dioxide pollution. This measure is used to assess the economic benefits and costs of regulations that apply to polluting industries, such as transportation and energy.

As scientists are increasingly able to link global warming to wildfires, floods, droughts, storms and heatwaves, estimates of the social cost of carbon have become more sophisticated.

The higher the number, the more the government justifies forcing polluters to reduce emissions that are dangerously warming the planet. Under the Obama administration, White House economists estimated the social cost of carbon at $42 per ton. The Trump administration lowered it to less than $5 per ton. Under President Biden, the cost was brought back to Obama levels, adjusted for inflation and set at $51.

The new estimate of the social cost of carbon, debuting in legally binding federal regulation, is almost four times higher: $190 per ton.

EPA officials say they intend to use that figure in all of the agency’s climate regulations going forward.

“It’s a huge win – it’s awesome. It’s awesome ! said Michael Greenstone, the Obama administration economist who first came up with the idea of ​​using the social cost of carbon to create an economic rationale for climate policy.

“This brings the U.S. government to the frontier of climate science and economics, where we were lagging behind,” said Mr. Greenstone, who now directs the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. “And that means there will be a case for stricter climate regulations.” This means that power plants and polluting cars will no longer be able to emit as much.”

The new figure will be implemented immediately: The EPA plans to issue final regulations this spring to reduce carbon dioxide from cars, trucks and power plants. Insert the new figure into the agency’s proposal to reduce tailpipe emissions by increasing electric vehicle sales or its proposal to eliminate pollution from power plants, and the economic benefits of each rule could reach more than 1,000 billion dollars, much more than estimates. cost to affected industries. So would new rules aimed at reducing pollution from steel mills, cement plants, factories and oil refineries, which Mr. Biden is considering if re-elected to a second term.

“With a number this high, many other actions to combat climate change will pass the cost-benefit test,” said Michael B. Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.

This is a crucial point in the legal battle over regulation: historically, when the government can demonstrate that the economic benefit of a regulation outweighs its cost, courts are likely to uphold those rules against legal challenge.

“This figure means the government has a weapon it can use to justify whatever it wants to do. » Elizabeth Murrillthe Republican solicitor general of Louisiana, said in an interview.

Ms. Murrill is among a group of Republican attorneys general who are preparing to fight climate regulations coming from the Biden administration, which they see as a government attack on industry.

A federal judge has rejected a challenge to the Biden administration’s decision to set the cost of carbon pollution at $51 per ton. Ms Murrill said the new figure should be easier to challenge in court because it would have far greater economic consequences.

“Now we have a real-world application of the numbers and now we can go back and question everything,” she said.

EPA officials have said they are prepared to face any legal challenge. They spent more than two years working on a 182-page analysis, documenting the scientific and economic methods they used to assess the damage to livelihoods, property values ​​and raw material costs due to climate change.

“It’s a huge problem, and it reflects the impacts of climate change that people experience every day,” Vicki Arroyo, EPA associate administrator for policy, said in an interview.

“If you look at the recent National Climate Assessment, these numbers reflect what the scientific community sees as the cost of climate change to society,” Ms. Arroyo said, noting the release last month of an in-depth report documenting the impact of climate change. on the lives of Americans, due to the increase in the number of deaths during extreme heat in the Southwest, earlier and longer pollen seasons in Texas, the northward migration of crop pests in the Corn Belt and more damaging hailstorms in Wyoming and Nebraska.

The assessment includes a chapter on economics, reflecting a growing area of ​​research on the financial costs of global warming and their impact on households, businesses and markets.

Researchers for the National Academies of Sciences concluded in 2017 that the Obama-era estimate that every ton of carbon pollution causes $42 in damage to the economy was outdated, and recommended that the government revise that figure. A study published last year in the journal Nature concluded that the price should be $185 per tonne.

Mr. Trump, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination in the 2024 presidential election, could try to reduce the cost of carbon measurement if he wins the White House, as he did when he reduced the figure of the Obama era.

But Mandy Gunasekara, who served as EPA chief of staff during the Trump administration, said that given the research and analysis behind the new figure, it might be difficult for a new administration to reduce it easily.

“There is a high degree of legal certainty” given the inclusion of that figure in the new methane regulations, said Ms. Gunasekara, who is now a visiting scholar at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research organization that writes the plans for the next Republican election. the administration’s energy and climate agenda.

Still, she added, a future Republican administration will likely try to do so.

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David B.Otero

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