States' rights and climate change

By Steve McConnell
Posted 4/18/07

With the Supreme Court admonishing the EPA for sidestepping greenhouse gas regulations in a 5-4 ruling, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) is waiting for the federal agency to “lead the way,” according to Ron Gore, head of …

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States' rights and climate change


With the Supreme Court admonishing the EPA for sidestepping greenhouse gas regulations in a 5-4 ruling, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) is waiting for the federal agency to “lead the way,” according to Ron Gore, head of the department’s Air Quality Division.

Gore said: “We are largely policemen…(and) we rely on the EPA to do the science,” noting that the department does not employ climatologists. 

“Affluent states,” he said, such as California, have scientists that can formulate a department opinion.  In general, he said ADEM lacks the resources to evaluate climate change. 

“We’re considering doing inventories with greenhouses gases…if we find the resources,” he said, adding that the department has a “handle” on large greenhouse gas emitters.

Ultimately, ADEM will tackle heat-trapping gases if Congress authorizes the states to do so, or if the EPA changes direction with their current methodology, he said. 

In Massachusetts vs. EPA, the EPA argued that the federal agency does not have the authority to regulate greenhouse gases, including vehicle tailpipe emissions, according to the federal Clean Air Act. 

The act does deny states the right to enforce greenhouse emissions from new motor vehicles since according to Section 209 (a) “no state or any political subdivision thereof shall adopt or attempt to enforce any standard relating to the control of emissions from new motor vehicles.” 

The EPA controls national environmental policy and thus far the agency has taken a voluntary approach to greenhouse gas regulation with a target reduction of “greenhouse gas intensity by 18 percent by 2012,” according to EPA documentation. 

Greenhouse gas intensity is not an outright reduction of emissions, but rather a ratio of greenhouse gas emissions to economic output. 

The EPA encouraged states to participate, voluntarily, in cost-effective programs that would aim to reduce emissions through methods such as state-action plans which identify greenhouse sources while establishing mitigation controls.

Alabama released a state-action plan in 1997 under the guidance of the University of Alabama and an Advisory Panel, representing stakeholders from state agencies, utilities, the legislature, industry, regulators, industrial development and environmentalists, according to the plan. 

The plan’s text stated “a preference for voluntary rather than mandated programs” since “the debate about the reality of global warming continues at the local, state, national and world arena.

“Without clearer proof of global warming, policy makers from conservative states such as Alabama will not be anxious to implement local and state mandates to reduce emissions.”

Recommended voluntary approaches included energy efficiency practices such as improved building standards; transportation measures including state-wide inspections in order to improve vehicle maintenance; and carbon sequestration methods via tree planting programs and improved management of existing forest stands, among others. 

Yet, Massachusetts, along with 11 other states and 13 environmental groups, sued the EPA for their voluntary methodology to combating greenhouse gases and inevitably climate change.  

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report in February which stated that humans are driving climate change through greenhouse emissions.  

The report – which was reviewed by more than 600 scientists and edited by government officials representing 154 countries - assessed peer reviewed and published scientific literature in order to determine a definitive conclusion regarding climate change and its potential impacts in the future.

In short, anthropogenic greenhouse gases are derived mainly from the burning of fossil fuels since combustion releases carbon dioxide, the primary culprit, into the atmosphere. 

Carbon dioxide, along with other heat-trapping gases including methane, nitrous oxide, ozone and water vapor, trap solar radiation from exiting the atmosphere, thus increasing the average global temperature. 

The greenhouse effect - the warming of Earth via greenhouse gases - is a natural facet of the environment since the planet would be inhospitable to human existence without it.   

However, the IPCC report concludes that the intensity of greenhouse gases emitted from human-related activities will increase Earth’s global temperature by 7.2 °F by 2099. 

Generally, an increase in temperature due to human-driven climate change may create a detrimental environment including sea level rises, heat waves, droughts, floods, ice sheet and icecap melting and abnormal weather patterns, according to the report. 

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling on April 2 that the EPA has the authority to regulate tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide adds weight to the debate; and now, states have the right to sue the EPA for its climate change policies. 

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority that the “question is whether the Clean Air Act authorizes the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles in the event that it forms a ‘judgment’ that such emissions contribute to climate change. We have little trouble concluding that it does.”

The decision prods the EPA to abandon the voluntary approach and also, enhances state environmental departments say and legal standing regarding state-level greenhouse gas mandates and reductions. 

California has reopened its bid to regulate tailpipe emissions since the court’s ruling, and if successful, the state will become the first nationwide with the authority to do so, according to reports.  

Gore referenced California as “affluent” thus enabling the state, he said, to contain proper resources and staff. 

ADEM, in fact, is squeezed by budget constraints as their fiscal year 2006 – 2007 appropriations was $97 million, representing a portion of Alabama’s $10.9 billion general fund. 

In comparison, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection receives $3.5 billion from a $73.6 billion budget for the same fiscal year. 

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed 2007-2008 budget for the California Environmental Protection Agency stands at $6.4 billion with $394.6 million earmarked for the Air Resources Board, which is directly in charge of the state’s climate change reduction program. 


On April 6, the IPCC released a report entitled “Climate Change: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” which addressed the effects climate change will have on societal and environmentally related activities. 

The report concluded that “many natural systems are being affected by regional climate changes, particularly temperature increases” including changes in Arctic and Antarctic ecosystems and “increased run-off and earlier spring peak discharge in many glacier and snow-fed rivers,” among many others. 

Each region will experience variable impacts - some positive, some negative - generally depending on latitude and historical climate; an arid region, for example, can expect to expand its aridity spatially. 

By mid-century, freshwater availability will decrease by 10-30 percent in some dry regions at mid-latitudes while in high latitudes it will increase by 10-40 percent, according to the report. 

“Water supplies stored in glaciers and snow cover are projected to decline reducing water availability in regions supplied by meltwater from major mountain ranges, where more than one-sixth of the world population currently lives,” according to the report. 

If the global temperature average increases .83 °F to 1.38 °F, the report concludes that 20-30 percent of plant and animal species are likely to be at risk of extinction. 

The report also states that it is “likely” extreme weather events will increase in intensity thus creating economic and social costs that will be “substantial in the areas most directly affected,” such as the Gulf Coast.  

Overall, the report concludes that the mitigation of greenhouse gases and the adaptation to regional climate changes will lessen the impact. 

But, the IPCC is concerned with “formidable environmental, economic, informational, social, attitudinal and behavioral barriers to the implementation of adaptation” to climate change.