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Can the Clean Water Act Cut Carbon Emissions?

>The EPA may be turning to an unexpected legal avenue in its campaign to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: the Clean Water Act.

As the Senate wrangles over multiple versions of a climate bill that will face tough voting odds in any incarnation, the EPA has been quietly exploring creative ways to staunch emissions, Les Blumenthal of McClatchy Newspapers reported on Sunday. Most of these strategies have centered on the Clean Air Act, which the EPA is using to curb emissions from power plants starting next year and which the agency has also explored as a potential vehicle for cap-and-trade. The Clean Water Act, however, is new territory.

Last year, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the EPA for not recognizing rising acidity in coastal waters off Washington State. The Center used extensive scientific data to argue that rising carbon dioxide emissions were accelerating acidification and that the Clean Water Act required the EPA to reduce emissions. The case settled in March with the EPA agreeing to take on ocean acidification. The agency solicited public comment on the issue a few weeks ago and must decide on a course of action by November.  

Ocean acidification usually plays second fiddle to global warming, but it is a highly dangerous side effect of rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Acidification disrupts marine ecosystems and is particularly threatening to shellfish and coral, creatures with carbonate shells that are dissolved by acid. But because ocean acidification has been studied more intensely in certain parts of the country than in others, the EPA may require up to ten years of further study before working it into new regulations.


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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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