WASHINGTON - Some environmental and alternative-energy groups want carbon dioxide from vehicle tailpipes to be regulated as a pollutant even though the gas occurs naturally in the air and is freely exchanged by plants, animals and humans.
The groups, in the latest twist in what has been an ongoing battle over global warming, last week petitioned the EPA to expand its regulatory power under the Clean Air Act to include control of carbon dioxide. They said they may soon move the fight to court.
Joseph Mendelson, who filed the petition, said the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to regulate substances in vehicle exhaust that can be 'reasonably anticipated' to endanger public health or welfare. He is legal director of the International Center for Technology Assessment, a small, five-year-old organization that focuses on the societal effects of technology.
More senior Washington environmental activists said privately that the auto industry isn't cowering under the threat of carbon dioxide regulation, but if courts got involved, the outcome would be more unpredictable.
Existing EPA regulations deal with known threats to health, such as carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides. The petitioning groups say carbon dioxide also should be controlled. The argument: Even though it is a natural part of the atmosphere, the gas, in higher concentrations, contributes to global warming, which in turn does endanger public health.
Actually, the EPA already is on record saying it believes it has authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide, but has no plan to do so.
If the EPA rejects the petition, proponents of regulation would have standing to seek a federal court order requiring regulation of carbon dioxide, Mendelson said.
`KIND OF SILLY'
Greg Dana, vice president for environmental affairs of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said he doesn't know how member companies feel, but added that his personal reaction to the petition is that 'it's kind of silly.'
As for the notion EPA might regulate carbon dioxide, he said, 'I think it's a real stretch to call it a pollutant since it's pretty fundamental to our way of life on earth.'
The groups filing the petition -which also include Friends of the Earth, Public Citizen, Greenpeace and the Solar Energy Industries Association - said they took the step because Congress has been resisting moves to fight global warming and because the Clinton administration has done little more than talk about the issue.
The groups said the administration had an opportunity to act when it proposed new emissions rules for cars and trucks, scheduled to be effective in 2004, but did not deal with carbon dioxide. The president also could have vetoed the fiscal 2000 transportation spending bill because it includes, for the fifth year, a freeze on fuel economy standards, but he signed it instead.
In a related development, negotiators from countries around the world are scheduled to meet in Bonn, Germany, this week to plan further refinements in the global warming treaty negotiated in Kyoto, Japan, in late 1997.
The treaty, not yet presented to the Senate for ratification, would require the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2010. Currently, the country is on track to have emissions 13 percent higher than 1990 by next year.