In a decision that elated environmentalists but left industry groups wary, the Obama administration Friday classified carbon dioxide as a pollutant, delivering a long-awaited finding designed in part to force Congress to act on climate change.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s “endangerment finding” stated that carbon dioxide, along with five other gases, is responsible for global public health hazards, marking the first step in a lengthy regulatory process to curb carbon emissions, a campaign that one Democrat called the green equivalent of the civil rights movement.
While the finding itself would not directly curb greenhouse gas emissions, it is widely expected to light a fire under lawmakers who will be debating climate-change legislation in the coming months.
The draft released Friday found that carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride are causing changes in the global climate. The high levels of the six gases in the atmosphere are “the unambiguous result of human emissions” and are responsible for more intense heat waves, storms and wildfires; increased flooding and droughts; and other “effects on public health and welfare,” the agency said.
Massachusetts Democrat Edward J. Markey, chairman of a key House subcommittee on energy that will begin leading hearings on climate change Tuesday, compared the EPA decision to the landmark civil rights ruling Brown v. Board of Education that many consider the launch of the civil rights movement.
“This decision is a game-changer,” Mr. Markey said Friday. “It now changes the playing field with respect to legislation.”
But House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, decried what he called the legislative strong-arming coordinated between the administration and congressional Democrats.
“This decision is nothing more than a backdoor attempt to enact a national energy tax that will have a crushing impact on consumers, jobs and our economy,” said Mr. Boehner.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has yet to take a hard stance on climate-change legislation, offered a more measured response, saying the EPA is at a “crossroads.”
“In proposing endangerment without attaching regulations, the EPA recognizes that the framework of the Clean Air Act poses a unique set of legal and, ultimately, economic problems,” said Bill Kovacs, the Chamber’s vice president for environment, technology and regulatory affairs.
Manufacturers and energy producers - who would be hardest hit by a new cap on greenhouse gas emissions - were more critical, saying the finding will ultimately destroy American jobs.
“It is the worst possible time to be proposing rules that will drive up the cost of energy to no valid purpose,” said National Association of Manufacturers President John Engler.
Amid the euphoric declarations by supporters and gloomy statements from detractors, EPA officials cautioned that the finding does not guarantee action from the Obama administration.
“This finding confirms that greenhouse gas pollution is a serious problem now and for future generations,” Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said in a carefully worded statement. “This pollution problem has a solution - one that will create millions of green jobs and end our country’s dependence on foreign oil.”
Mrs. Jackson is set to testify before Mr. Markey’s subcommittee Wednesday, punctuating a week of hearings on climate-change legislation. The administration is pressing Congress to act by holding out the prospect of regulations to curb emissions if lawmakers do not.
The Bush administration resisted releasing rules for regulating carbon dioxide, for fear that using the Clean Air Act to control carbon emissions would wreak havoc on U.S. businesses.
Although the Obama administration has moved quickly on the endangerment finding, White House “climate czar” Carol Browner told a gathering in Boston earlier this month that it was unlikely that carbon would be capped using a regulatory measure instead of legislation.
The EPA will hold two public hearings, one May 18 in Virginia and a second May 21 in Washington state, to hear public comment before taking final action.