The Environmental Protection Agency formally declared Monday that carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels poses a threat to human health and welfare, a designation that set the federal government on the path toward regulating of emissions from power plants, factories, automobiles and other major sources.
The declaration has been expected for months, after the Obama administration said earlier this year that it would act on a 2007 Supreme Court decision that found carbon dioxide and five other so-called greenhouse gases are pollutants covered by the Clean Air Act.
Although it could have delayed the announcement until March, the administration chose the first day of the United Nations global warming conference in Copenhagen as a way to signal that President Obama wants to convince global leaders that the U.S. will cut its greenhouse gas emissions either through legislation or regulation.
The willingness by the administration to rein in emissions has been considered critical to the adoption of a political deal at the 192-nation conference, which ends on Dec. 18. Mr. Obama plans to attend at the end of the event with more than 100 world leaders.
Mr. Obama has said he would prefer that Congress regulate emissions through a cap-and-trade law that would set a declining limit on emissions. The administration contends that such a law would provide needed flexibility to companies that want to exceed their annual emissions quota, by allowing them to buy excess pollution permits from others that cut emissions faster than required.
The House cap-and-trade bill passed in June would prohibit EPA regulation, but a Senate bill, passed in committee last month, would not. That bill has been stalled because of regional and political division as well as the Senate's decision to debate health care reform this fall.
Jeff Holmstead, a former EPA air administrator under the Bush administration who heads the environmental strategies group at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani, said the EPA declaration is primarily symbolic — for now.
"It does not have any immediate effect and does not impose any regulations or requirements on anyone. But it is a necessary prerequisite for the regulation of greenhouse gases from cars, trucks, businesses, factories, farms, and potentially even apartment buildings, schools, and hospitals," he said.
"Today's announcement comes as no surprise and is clearly designed to set the stage for the Copenhagen conference," he added.
Charles T. Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, a group that fears greenhouse gas regulations will force oil companies to shut down domestic refineries in favor of imported motor fuels, called the EPA decision "another example of federal policy makers failing to consider the long-term consequences of a regulatory action for consumers and the economy as a whole."