06/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

EPA & Regulation of Greenhouse Gases

EPA is often torn between sound science, analytical techniques/limitations and politics. Many of the standards set by EPA are "moving targets", because although EPA's goal is to lower acceptable standards for toxins and pollutants, the analytical techniques are not available to provide accurate measurements on the low end of the scale for "real world" environments, such as lake/ocean water, city air and school playgrounds.

The Clean Air Act (CAA) established broad authority to deal with air pollution, and subsequent court cases have helped define the meaning of this legislation. Light-duty vehicles, construction equipment, airplanes and ships are subject to CAA regulation, along with electric generation sources, industrial source and commercial sources. In the most recent significant case, Massachusetts v. EPA, 127 S. Ct. 1438 (2007), the Court acknowledged that greenhouse gases or GHGs are considered air pollutants under the CAA. The Court also determined that EPA should be involved in GHG regulation, due to the impact on public health and welfare. In addition, the Court stated that the goals of several regulatory agencies, including EPA and DOT, do not conflict with one another when setting standards under the CAA even thought they may overlap.

Greenhouse gases trap heat, which would normally escape into space, in the Earth's atmosphere. GHG's have long atmospheric lifetimes (years) and can therefore become widely dispersed over areas not responsible for those GHG emissions, while at the same time remaining difficult to remove from the atmosphere. The top six GHGs are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). GHG's come from several sources, including electricity generators, transportation, industrial, residential and commercial, agricultural and land use sources. Fuels -- whether they are used to power vehicles, heat homes or generate electricity -- are responsible for the majority of GHGs. Carbon dioxide makes up 85% of the total U.S. GHGs, and 79% of that CO2 comes from fossil fuel combustion. (EPA Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, p. 99 (2008)).

As the Obama energy team considers GHG regulation, several effective steps could be implemented this year. First, EPA can and should provide higher standards with respect to GHG control in automobiles and commercial transport vehicles, which clearly make up most of the vehicle traffic in the U.S. The science and analytical techniques with respect to determination and control of vehicle emissions are sound, sophisticated and available to everyone. For example, California emissions tests routinely measure CO, CO2, NOx, hydrocarbons and oxygen in exhaust from automobiles. These tests are immediately useful in determining emissions from automobiles utilizing any number of fuels ranging from gasoline and diesel to "FlexFuel" and biofuels. In addition, EPA should work with DOT now to increase corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, which would mandate higher fuel efficiency in light duty and heavy duty vehicles. Now may also be a good time to increase CAFE standards, because of innovation in the US and Japan with respect to engine design coupled with the public's willingness to transition to higher efficiency vehicles. The current goal is to raise CAFE standards to 35 MPG by 2020, which is inadequate for controlling fuel consumption/emissions and encouraging new engine design.

Second, EPA should consider managing the transition from fossil fuels to renewable and sustainable fuel technologies. Biofuels and electricity generated from geothermal, wind and solar sources represent the future of fuels for two reasons -- national security/economic security and the potential for lower emissions. A reduction of our dependence on foreign sources of oil, along with adding new jobs to the U.S. economy by producing fuels and power sources domestically are obvious benefits from transitioning to renewable and sustainable fuel technologies.

For biofuels, including those currently in use and future generations, the issue of GHG emissions is partly related to the production of biofuels, especially for emissions produced from indirect effect sources, such as land degradation, land conversion, deforestation, pesticide and fertilizer production and use. Any fuel must be extracted (crude oil, coal) or harvested (biofuels), processed, transported and then burned. The analysis of crude oil production and utilization is sometimes referred to as a "well to wheels" analysis, which provides information on the total emissions impact of the process of producing and burning gasoline and diesel fuels. For biofuels, the analysis may be a "land to wheels" analysis, wherein the "wheels" portion of the equation can already be readily determined. The "land" portion, however, is a bit trickier and more controversial.

Several preliminary models exist pertaining to the total effect or "lifecycle" of GHG emissions from biofuels production. With respect to the production of any fuel source, including biofuels, EPA should affirm that GHG emission reduction throughout the process is the ultimate goal. EPA should also provide examples and references that identify both high emission and low emission production techniques and routes, as seen in its reference to the differences between the production of corn ethanol through a dry mill process and a coal-fired wet mill process. Finally, EPA should review the production of first generation biofuels and set initial standards based on emissions from those processes, which will provide biofuel research teams with expectations as to future biofuel production emissions.

The concept of utilizing biofuels in place of fossil fuels is exciting from both a national security/economic security and a climate control standpoint. The hundreds of biofuel-related patent applications on file in the U.S. leave no doubt that there is a significant innovation pipeline for this technology, including growth and harvesting, processing and burning of biofuels, along with new sources of biofuels. The goal of both EPA and industry should be better biofuels and not necessarily more biofuels. A balancing act of thoughtful and comprehensive standards put forth by EPA, coupled with continued input, data and partnership from industry and the scientific community, along with education of the general public on energy efficiency can accomplish this goal - as long as the focus is on the science and not the special interests.