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EPA setting course for world

The environmental Protection Agency will soon unveil its most anticipated new rules in a generation, the shape of which will help determine how well the United States responds to the threat of climate change. There will be fierce debate before they become final. Critics will try to undermine the effort by insisting that the rules be weak, poorly designed and unnecessarily expensive. Instead, the EPA should make them ambitious, fair and flexible.

Congress decades ago empowered the agency to regulate a range of air pollutants, so it can apply various extant authorities to cut greenhouse gas emissions without further congressional action.

The EPA is poised to demand cuts from existing power plants. They are responsible for nearly half of the nation’s greenhouse emissions. The EPA should use the toughest baseline it can justify based on the marginal cost of reducing carbon dioxide under its program.

That will depend on the outcome of another major dispute: How flexible will the rules be? The EPA wants to set broad emissions goals for states, then allow state governments and power companies flexibility in meeting them. Critics contend that the EPA can’t do that under the Clean Air Act. The extent of EPA authority will be decided in court. But there is no doubt about what the better policy would be. Instead of limiting the EPA to plant-by-plant mandates, it is far better to demand deeper emissions cuts but offer the power sector leeway to meet them inexpensively and creatively.

A node of opposition is coalescing around the perverse notion that if there are to be new rules, they must be irrationally painful.

What’s at stake is more than a few gigatons of carbon dioxide here or there. The world is closely watching what emerges from the EPA rulemaking process. Other nations will use the results to gauge this country’s seriousness – and the extent to which they can find moral cover to delay cuts they should be making. The United States should not offer them any.