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Copenhagen and the EPA's Unlikely Endangerment Finding Coincidence

Today brought two major events in the battle to curb climate change, one international and one at home. The first, long expected, was the beginning of the Copenhagen international climate conference in Denmark. The second event, less scheduled, was the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's ruling that greenhouse gases are a threat to public welfare.

There seems to be a clear connection between these two events: President Barack Obama plans on visiting Copenhagen to try to reassert American leadership, but Congress has not been cooperative in climate legislation. The EPA ruling provides the Obama Administration with additional proof of its efforts to present to the international community.

Nevertheless, there's no connection, at least according to the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs. The timing is based only on "the fact that the first step of this process is being completed," Gibbs said today.

That account was at least partially contradicted by EPA head Lisa Jackson, who said that the finding allows the U.S. to "arrive at the climate talks in Copenhagen with a clear demonstration of our commitment to face this global challenge." The press blitz around the announcement, and the leaking of the story to the Wall Street Journal ahead of time, also suggest an orchestrated event.

The mixed messages bring one question to the forefront: What does the EPA really hope to accomplish with its finding?

Regulation of CO2 is a possibility, but not a strong one. While the U.S. Supreme Court found in 2007 that the EPA did indeed have jurisdiction over CO2, nannying every greenhouse gas emitter is far beyond the scope of the agency, and requires significant bending of regulatory language to explain why some sources (heavy emitters like refineries) would be regulated and not others (a small restaurant, for example).

There's also the matter of the climate legislation being wrangled over in Congress. Each of the various versions includes a similar provision: If the bill is passed, the EPA's authority over CO2, methane and other GHGs will be removed.

The EPA's initial restrictions, over light trucks, won't even take place until 2012, and there seems to be little doubt that Congress will pass one of the bills under consideration by then.

In all likelihood, both the EPA and the Obama administration are not only aware that the finding is thus largely symbolic, but they've also decided to use the threat of regulation without any intent of ever enacting it -- a thought that Jackson has again confirmed many times by suggesting that Congressional legislation would be a preferable way to address GHGs.

Whether using the EPA finding to showboat is a good idea, though, is another question. EPA regulation is obviously a strong-arm tactic -- hardly the the image a president elected on the promise of post-partisanship should pursue.

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