On Monday, the EPA announced its endangerment finding for greenhouse gases. One can infer from the timing of the announcement that the administration may have taken this action at this time in order to bring something to the table at the Copenhagen COP15 meeting.

From a scientific viewpoint, it was an odd time to do so — given that the very recent Climategate disclosures would presumably have taken some time to digest and analyze for their possible effects on vital conclusions. So the timing may have been based more on the political, rather than the scientific, factors involved.

But from a larger viewpoint, the U.S. president who was going to find a way to resolve partisan bickering in Washington has now embarked on a major escalation of the conflict — by using the power he holds over executive branch agencies to fight his enemies in Congress over the issue of global warming.

Although the EPA has always been, organizationally, an arm of the administration in power, until this administration the EPA has generally been able to maintain the appearance (if not the reality) of being science-based.

That is now much harder to maintain.

Originally, the rumor was that the purpose of the endangerment finding would be to pressure Congress into approving a cap and trade bill. Now, it appears fairly clear that the administration will not be able to gather the needed votes in the Senate to pass the bill — at least this year, and probably even next year, either with or without an endangerment finding. So there would seem to be little reason to push the endangerment finding now — unless they intended to use it as the basis for negotiating at COP15.

Some Major Political Risks

This EPA endangerment approach carries major risks for the administration. The first risk is that the EPA’s apparently politically motivated endangerment finding may be overturned in the now-inevitable court reviews.

The second risk is that when greenhouse gas regulations should be announced — and certainly when they should ever be implemented — the full responsibility will obviously fall onto the administration, rather than being shared between the administration and Congress (which is what would occur if Congress ever adopted a cap and trade bill). If constituents end up being unhappy with the resulting regulations, and particularly the greatly increased energy costs and decreased employment that will result, it will be obvious who was responsible.

And there may well be some very unhappy constituents.

A third risk is that they will not be able to contain the EPA’s actions, since the law clearly specifies that much smaller sources are subject to regulation than they now contemplate, and legal action may force the EPA to regulate smaller sources whether it wants to or not.

A fourth risk is that the added uncertainties created by the finding, and the added costs in terms of higher energy prices and reduced employment, will further weaken the administration’s claims to be primarily interested in combating the recession — the issue currently most on the mind of voters.