WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration opened the way to regulating U.S. greenhouse gas emissions on Friday by declaring climate-warming pollution a danger to human health and welfare, in a sharp policy shift from the Bush administration.
Environmental activists and their supporters in Congress were jubilant and industry groups were wary at the news of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's move. The White House said President Barack Obama would prefer legislation over administrative action to curb greenhouse emissions.
Congress is already considering a bill to cut emissions of carbon dioxide, which is emitted by cars, coal-fired power plants and oil refineries, among other sources.
EPA's declaration was seen as a strong signal to the international community that the United States intends to seriously combat climate change.
In its announcement, the EPA said, "greenhouse gases in the atmosphere endanger the public health and welfare of current and future generations" and human activities spur global warming.
"This finding confirms that greenhouse gas pollution is a serious problem now and for future generations," said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. "Fortunately, it follows President Obama's call for a low carbon economy and strong leadership in Congress on clean energy and climate legislation,"
"The president has made clear his strong preference that Congress act to pass comprehensive legislation rather than address the climate challenge through administrative action," a White House official said, noting that Obama has repeatedly called for "a bill to provide for market-based solutions to reduce carbon pollution."
The EPA's endangerment finding said high atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases "are the unambiguous result of human emissions, and are very likely the cause of the observed increase in average temperatures and other climatic changes." The document is available online at www.epa.gov.
The EPA's finding is essential for the U.S. government to regulate climate-warming emissions like carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. Regulation is not automatically triggered by the finding -- there will be a 60-day comment period.
But as that period proceeds, legislation is moving through Congress aimed at cutting carbon dioxide emissions with a cap-and-trade system, which would let those companies that emit more than the limit buy credits from those that emit less.
MAJOR SHIFT FROM BUSH
EPA scientists last year offered evidence of the health hazards of greenhouse emissions, but the Bush administration took no action. It opposed across-the-board mandatory regulation of climate-warming pollution, saying this would hurt the U.S. economy.
Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who shepherded climate legislation to the Senate floor last year, called the EPA's finding "long overdue."
"We have lost eight years in this fight," Boxer said in a statement. "... The best and most flexible way to deal with this serious problem is to enact a market-based cap-and-trade system which will help us make the transition to clean energy and will bring us innovation and strong economic growth.""At long last, EPA is officially recognizing that carbon pollution is leading to killer heat waves, stronger hurricanes, higher smog levels and many other threats to human health," said David Doniger at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
But the National Association of Manufacturers said trying to regulate greenhouse emissions with the Clean Air Act would "further burden an ailing economy while doing little or nothing to improve the environment."
"This proposal will cost jobs. It is the worst possible time to be proposing rules that will drive up the cost of energy to no valid purpose," NAM President John Engler said.
Steve Seidel of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change said the EPA announcement is an important message to the international community, which is set to meet in Copenhagen in December to craft a follow-up agreement to the carbon-capping Kyoto Protocol.
"This decision sends a strong signal to the international community that the United States is moving forward to regulate greenhouse gas emissions," Seidel said by telephone.
However, he said this move alone is no guarantee of success in Copenhagen. Participants in that meeting will also look for progress in the U.S. Congress, and for movement from other developed and developing countries.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled two years ago that the EPA has the authority to make these regulations if human health is threatened by global warming pollution, but no regulations went forward during the Bush administration.
Carbon dioxide, one of several greenhouse gases that spur global warming, is emitted by natural and industrial sources, including fossil-fueled vehicles, coal-fired power plants and oil refineries.
By Deborah Zabarenko and Tom Doggett
(Additional reporting by Tim Gardner and Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Eric Walsh)