Press Release | April 17, 2009

EPA’s finding that global warming pollution endangers public health has major implications for the South

Today the Environmental Protection Agency issued a preliminary determination that carbon dioxide and other pollutants that contribute to climate change jeopardize human health and the environment, marking a historic step toward establishing comprehensive, nationwide restrictions on global warming emissions. The agency says that current levels of greenhouse gases are already a threat. The move stems from a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that carbon dioxide is an air pollutant under the Clean Air Act, and, if EPA finds that the pollutant endangers people’s health and welfare, the agency must broaden its greenhouse gas regulations.

Although today’s action focuses on global warming emissions from cars, trucks, and other vehicles, a final determination by EPA will compel the agency to expand its existing authority to control similar emissions from large facilities like fossil fuel-burning power plants, the main source of carbon dioxide in the U.S. The agency will hold public hearings and review comments before finalizing the finding.

The Southeast will be center-stage as the issue unfolds, both in terms of reducing carbon levels, and benefiting from those reductions. The region contributes substantially to global warming emissions from both tailpipes and smokestacks. If, the six-state region of Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee were a nation, it would rank 7th in the world in total carbon emissions. With extensive, low-lying coastlines and highly sensitive mountain ecosystems, the region is especially vulnerable to climate change related sea-level rise, increased storm frequency and intensity, prolonged drought, and higher average temperatures.

Following are statements from SELC experts:
Trip Pollard: “This finding is a significant, long-overdue step towards addressing threats posed by global warming and moving our country away from costly fossil fuel dependence. Much more needs to be done by EPA, as well as by Congress, states, local communities and individuals. But the benefits of acting will be enormous, including cleaner air, lower energy bills, more transportation choices, green jobs, and increased energy security.”

Frank Rambo: “The Clean Air Act and recent court decisions make it clear that carbon dioxide from large industrial plants, particularly coal-burning power plants, already are subject to regulation. Today, the EPA moved toward more carbon reductions at those sources, and took the critically important step in addressing the other main source of global warming emissions—motor vehicles.”

In the fast-growing Southeast region, vehicle exhaust accounts for roughly one-third of carbon emissions. Population growth is among the highest in the nation. In addition, land is being developed at a faster rate per capita than anywhere else in the country and state transportation programs in the Southeast have focused on new and expanded highways, providing few alternatives to driving and leading to longer driving distances. From 1990-2005, vehicle miles traveled in SELC’s region increased 48.9%, outpacing the national increase of 39.2%.

In terms of power plant emissions, approximately 60% of the region’s electricity comes from burning coal. Six more coal-fired power plants are proposed or being built, which would add more than 45 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year for the next 50-60 years.

The South has much at risk in a warming climate. Thousands of miles of tidal shoreline in the mid-Atlantic (VA, NC and SC) would be inundated by rising sea levels, wreaking havoc on some of the country’s most productive estuaries – including the Chesapeake Bay and the Pamlico Sound – and posing substantial consequences to millions of people living in the coastal zone. The Hampton Roads region of Virginia is second only to New Orleans in vulnerability to sea level rise, according to the state’s Commission on Climate Change.

In addition, warming temperatures will bring more intense weather systems, from droughts to hurricanes, which directly impact the availability of clean, fresh water for human consumption, irrigation, aquatic habitat and other uses. Much of the development in the South has assumed a steady supply of cheap, plentiful water; now, many metro areas are experiencing some degree of summertime water shortages.

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