Nessel asks EPA to consider National Ambient Air Quality Standards for greenhouse gasses

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel joined a coalition of 7 state and territorial Attorneys General in a letter to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan encouraging the EPA to consider establishing National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for greenhouse gasses to address the climate crisis. The letter follows in the wake of West Virginia v. EPA, the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision limiting the EPA’s ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. If the EPA were to adopt NAAQS for greenhouse gases, each state would be required to develop a comprehensive climate action plan specifically designed for that state.

The attorneys general, led by Oregon AG Ellen Rosenblum, emphasized in their letter why it makes good sense for the EPA to consider NAAQS. The letter says, in part: “The NAAQS provisions of the Clean Air Act are very clear: If a pollutant is a threat to public health and welfare, and if that pollutant comes from ‘numerous or diverse’ sources (like greenhouse gases), EPA is supposed to identify a concentration of that pollutant in the ‘ambient air’ that must not be exceeded. States are then responsible for ensuring that they do not exceed that level. EPA has used NAAQS successfully to fight pollutants like ozone, lead and particulate matter.”  

“Michigan’s average yearly temperature has increased by two to three degrees Fahrenheit since 1900, an undeniable result of greenhouse gases trapping heat in the atmosphere,” Nessel said. “Adopting National Ambient Air Quality Standards for greenhouse gases is vital if we are going to lessen the effects of climate change, the greatest global health threat of the 21st Century. So I’m proud to join my colleagues in asking the EPA to address this critical public health issue.”

In the letter, the attorneys general further write:

“Limiting the level of greenhouse gases in the air is central to preventing global temperature rise and concomitant climate disaster. In the Paris Agreement, which the United States recently rejoined, the nations of the world committed to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius.

“The Court’s invocation of the ‘major questions doctrine’ would not apply to NAAQS ... Congress intended NAAQS to have ‘vast economic and political significance’ ... ‘The protection of public health—as required by the national ambient air quality standards and as mandated by provision for elimination of emissions of supremely hazardous pollution agents—will require major action throughout the Nation.’

“Finally, we are aware that greenhouse gases can cross state and national boundaries. That is the reason the Clean Air Act contains a ‘good neighbor’ provision addressing interstate pollution. Under this provision, states will not be held responsible for emissions originating outside their borders.”

Developing NAAQS for greenhouse gases makes sense because the purpose of the international effort on climate change is to prevent the concentration of greenhouse gases in the air from reaching the tipping-point level. In West Virginia v. EPA, the Supreme Court did not say that the EPA cannot regulate greenhouse gases. Rather, it made a narrow ruling that the EPA cannot use one provision—section 111(d)—to regulate existing power plants in a particular way.  

“Given the magnitude of the climate threat, NAAQS are worth serious consideration by our top environmental and climate experts,” said Rosenblum.  

Oregon has been involved in litigation over the EPA’s right to regulate greenhouse gases from power plans since 2015. Together with a coalition of states that included Michigan, Oregon successfully challenged the Trump Administration’s attempts to roll back numerous environmental protections and continues to be actively engaged in climate protection efforts.

In addition to AG Nessel and the Oregon attorney general, the letter was signed and submitted to the EPA by the attorneys general of Delaware, Guam, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, and New Mexico.

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