Greenhouse gases can’t be regulated as toxic substances, says U.S. environmental agency

A view of cars on the street during rush hour in San Francisco August 24, 2022. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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  • NASA scientist James Hansen and others called on the US Environmental Protection Agency to phase out fossil fuels
  • The EPA said using the country’s toxins and Superfund laws for this purpose was too broad

The Biden administration on Wednesday refused to consider regulating greenhouse gas emissions as toxic substances, which a group of leading climate scientists in a petition to the agency said is necessary to tackle climate change and would allow the government to phase out fossil fuels to let.

In a note published in the Federal Register, the US Environmental Protection Agency said it agrees with scientists that the climate crisis warrants urgent action but forms a rule under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) or “Superfund” statute that allows it Government to recoup costs of cleaning up toxic sites is excessive and unreasonable.

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TSCA requires the government to prohibit the use, distribution, and disposal of chemicals that pose unreasonable risks to human health and the environment. The scientists’ petition targets too broad a spectrum of chemicals, activities, industries and emission sources – from agriculture to the power grid to homes – including activities already regulated elsewhere, the government said.

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“In the context of the massive problem of climate change, the petitioners have not made a sufficiently specific and targeted request related to specific substances and industries,” the EPA said.

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Many substances are also likely to be affected by landmark climate initiatives in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) recently signed into law by President Joe Biden, the agency said.

The petition was filed this summer by NASA scientist James Hansen, best known for testifying before Congress in the 1980s that helped raise awareness of the threat of climate change. He was joined by former EPA scientist Donn Viviani, Richard Heede, who directs the Climate Accountability Institute’s “Climate Majors” project, and John Birks, an atmospheric scientist best known for his research examining, among other things, the potential impacts of the nuclear winter discovered.

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The petition called on the agency to start the rulemaking process and phase out fossil fuels under TSCA, which scientists say would be the most effective way to slow climate change.

The EPA did not address whether greenhouse gases pose an unreasonable risk of harm, despite agreeing that climate change equates to an “undeniable, urgent crisis,” said Viviani, who believes the climate provisions in the IRA are inadequate.

Regulatory controls are “the most efficient avenue under current law if the EPA really wants to stop polluters from burning the planet and acidifying the ocean,” he said.

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