Another Inconvenient Truth



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Our broad editorial focus this month is on energy savings, a topic that should be of importance to pretty much all finishers as we slog through another winter here in the northern hemisphere.

Whether it’s for process heating, curing or just keeping the building warm, we all use electricity and natural gas. Natural gas is expensive, and it’s not going to get much cheaper any time soon. In the U.S., the vast majority (about 70%) of electricity is generated by burning of fossil fuels.

Minimizing energy consumption obviously is important from the bottom line standpoint. But another reason for working to reduce your energy use may be looming on the horizon: potential regulation of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, which result from combustion of fossil fuels.

The issue, of course, is global climate change—or more accurately, the extent to which human activities are contributing to global climate change. Opinions range from “not at all” to “greatly,” the latter opinion exemplified by former VP Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth.”

There’s fairly broad scientific consensus on a couple of points: that the Earth has experienced periods of global warming and cooling many times in the past and that we’re in the midst of a period of warming right now. The scientific debate revolves around whether (or to what extent) increases in global temperatures are caused by human

We know that atmospheric carbon is increasing, but CO2 makes up a very small part—less than 1%—of the atmosphere. The question is whether increasing global temperatures are attributable to increases in CO2 in the atmosphere that result from burning hydrocarbon fuels. Are the increases in atmospheric carbon sufficient to cause the types of earth changes environmentalists worry about? And should CO2 emissions be regulated?

The argument is now moving out of scientific circles and into the courts—rarely a good thing, unless you happen to be an attorney. As this is written, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments in a lawsuit brought by a coalition of twelve states plus several large cities and environmental groups.

The case is an attempt to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate CO2 as a dangerous air pollutant under the definition of the Clean Air Act.

Carbon dioxide, of course, is a chemical that living animals (including human beings) naturally exhale. Until recently, it was not considered a toxic pollutant. Then some scientists charged that CO2 was a “greenhouse gas,” a key contributor to global climate change.

The plaintiffs are challenging an appeals court ruling that EPA is not obliged to regulate CO2. The agency has consistently resisted regulating the gas, taking the line that, because CO2 was not a pollutant listed under the Clean Air Act, it had no right to regulate it.

If the states win, EPA would be forced to take a more active approach to controlling CO2 emissions. If they lose, tough new environmental measures in California and other states would be subject to being overturned and the right of states to set their own emissions targets would be undermined.

It will be months before the court hands down its judgment, and the case is likely to be decided on narrow legal grounds. Still, legal observers say the verdict could go either way. This marks the first time that environmental interests have attempted to further their agenda in the courts, and the verdict will without doubt impact the pace and tone of America’s approach to addressing climate change.

Manufacturers will want to watch the result and in fact have already weighed in with the court to tell their side of the story. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM; Washington DC) and several other industry associations have filed a brief in the case last fall. Their argument is basically that individuals and states do not have legal standing to force EPA to regulate without congressional authorization. NAM also contends that CO2 is a common and naturally occurring gas and that applying the Clean Air Act to CO2 emissions would require evidence that that’s what Congress intended when it passed the act.

Further, NAM says imposing controls on U.S. manufacturers will only place them at an increasing disadvantage in the global marketplace. “The issue is global, and a one-sided solution from U.S. regulators will only hurt American business, our competitiveness, and jobs,” says NAM VP of Energy Resources Policy Keith McCoy. 

Amen. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.