Regulatory Tracker

The Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases (Carbon Dioxide, Methane, Nitrous Oxide)

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Quick Take

The Biden administration is using its interim social cost of carbon estimates in rulemakings while litigation is ongoing in the Fifth and Eighth Circuits. The IWG is working on its final estimates.

Why it Matters

The “social cost of greenhouse gases (SC-GHGs)” (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide) quantifies the net harm to society of adding one ton of emissions of each of these GHGs in a year. SC-GHGs provide a range of dollar estimates that can be used to incorporate the social benefits of reducing emissions into cost-benefit analyses. The estimates also help agencies better consider the costs that GHG emissions impose on society, and calculate the benefit of reducing pollution. When the social cost of GHGs is not part of a government agency’s cost-benefit analysis, there is less regulatory leverage for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

President Obama created the Interagency Working Group (IWG) in 2009 to create consistent estimates for use across agencies that use the best available science. The IWG published its first estimates of the social cost of carbon (SC-CO2) in 2010 and updated them in 2013. In 2016, the IWG published a technical update that included the social costs of methane (SC-CH4) and nitrous oxide (SC-N2O).

President Trump disbanded the IWG in March 2017. Federal agencies employed a much more limited social cost calculation that did not account for global damages and used a significantly higher discount rate, making their estimates about seven times lower than those used during the Obama administration.

Current Status

On Jan. 20, 2021, President Biden reinstated the IWG and directed the group to publish interim estimates of the social cost of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane within 30 days and final ones by Jan. 2022. The IWG is still working on the final estimates.

The IWG released interim estimates on Feb. 26, 2021. The Biden administration has already used these interim numbers in its rulemakings, including EPA’s 2023 Light-Duty Vehicle GHG Emission Standards.

Two sets of Republican state attorneys general, led by Missouri and Louisiana, have challenged Biden’s directive in Executive Order 13990 to update the social cost of GHGs. The case led by Missouri case was dismissed but has been appealed to the Eighth Circuit. In the case led by Louisiana, the Western District of Louisiana blocked the Biden administration’s use of the interim estimates. However, the Fifth Circuit stayed this injunction, allowing the Biden administration to keep using the estimates while litigation continues. The Supreme Court denied Louisiana’s application to review the Fifth Circuit stay, and the case is ongoing before the Fifth Circuit. For more on these cases, read our analysis of the litigation. 

previous administrations
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Nov. 15, 2007 The Ninth Circuit holds that a weakened fuel efficiency rule was arbitrary and capricious because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) failed to consider the cost of carbon pollution.

obama administration
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Feb. 2010 The Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of GHGs (IWG), invoking President Clinton’s EO 12866calculates a social cost of carbon.

Aug. 2016 The IWG publishes the sixth technical update to the SCC. The cost is set at $36/ton.

Aug. 8, 2016 The Seventh Circuit upholds the Department of Energy’s use of the social cost of carbon in a cost-benefit analysis for updated refrigerator efficiency standards.

Trump administration
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March 28, 2017 President Trump’s EO 13783 disbands the IWG and announces that the social cost of carbon technical documents are “withdrawn as no longer representative of governmental policy.” Agencies are directed to revert to older White House guidance on how to do cost-benefit analyses. Under this guidance, an agency can, but is not encouraged or directed to, consider the health and economic costs of carbon pollution. Where agencies do consider the costs of pollution, President Trump tells agencies to rely on an old White House guidance document. That document directs agencies to consider only domestic climate effects and to use higher discount rates. The discount rate adjusts estimates of future climate damage into current dollars to determine what we can spend today to avoid future damage. A higher discount rate lowers the calculated value of preventing future damage

Sep. 28, 2018 BLM publishes a final rule largely repealing the 2016 Methane Waste Prevention Rule that required capture and control of methane emissions from oil and gas operations on federal lands. The rule uses a new interim social cost of methane that considers only domestic impacts of methane and uses a 3% and 7% discount rate, significantly lowering the benefits attributed to the 2016 rulemaking. (visit our Regulatory Tracker page on this rule)

July 8, 2019 EPA repeals the Clean Power Plan and replaces it with the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule. The rule uses a domestic-only social cost of carbon and 3% and 7% discount rates. (visit our Regulatory Tracker page on this rule)

Jan. 10, 2020 The Department of Energy releases a package of energy conservation standards that largely follow the IWG’s approach to the social cost of GHGs, including considering both global and domestic impacts and the full range of discount rates used by the IWG. The agency provides a robust defense of the development of the IWG’s numbers.

April 30, 2020 NHTSA and EPA finalize the SAFE Vehicles Rule using only domestic damage estimates in its social cost of carbon and using 3% and 7% discount rates, reducing the savings in carbon damages. (visit our Regulatory Tracker page on this rule)

Sep. 14 and 15, 2020 EPA releases two rules rolling back methane emissions standards for new and modified oil and gas facilities. These rules estimated the foregone benefits as a result of the rules using an interim domestic social cost of methane developed after the Trump administration withdrew the IWG’s technical documents. This estimate produced significantly lower estimates of benefits than the IWG’s method. EPA acknowledged that the rules would result in increased emissions of methane, VOCs, and HAPs. (visit our Regulatory Tracker page on these rules)

Oct. 13, 2020 EPA released the Steam Electric Reconsideration Rule in which it used a domestic social cost of carbon and 3% and 7% discount rates to calculate the social costs of the rule. (visit our Regulatory Tracker page on this rule)

Biden Administration
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Jan. 20, 2021 President Biden’s EO 13990 reinstates the IWG and directs the group to publish interim estimates of the social cost of carbon, nitrous oxide, and methane within 30 days and final ones by Jan. 2022. The Interagency Working Group is also instructed to recommend to the President where the Social Cost of GHGs should be applied (in what areas of decision-making, budgeting, and procurement) by Sep. 1, 2021, and a process for reviewing and updating them by June 1, 2022.

Feb. 26, 2021 The administration announces an inflation-adjusted version of the Obama-era Social Costs of GHGs as the interim Social Costs of GHGs.

March 8, 2021 Twelve state attorneys general, led by the state of Missouri, file a lawsuit challenging Section 5 of Biden’s EO 13990 regarding the social costs of GHGs. Missouri v. Biden, No. 21-cv-00287 (E.D. Mo. filed Mar. 8, 2021).

April 22, 2021 Ten state attorneys general, led by Louisiana, file another lawsuit challenging EO 13990’s directives regarding the social costs of GHGs and the administration’s release of the interim numbers. Louisiana v. Biden, No. 21-cv-01074 (W.D. La. filed Apr. 22, 2021).

June 2021 Government defendants file motions to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction and failure to state a claim in the Louisiana-led lawsuit. Louisiana v. Biden, No. 21-cv-01074 (W.D. La. filed Apr. 22, 2021); Louisiana v. Biden, No. 21-cv-01074 (W.D. La. filed Apr. 22, 2021).

August 2021The Eastern District of Missouri dismisses the Missouri-led lawsuit, finding plaintiffs lack standing and that their claims are not ripe for adjudication. Plaintiff states file a notice of appeal on Sep. 1, 2021.Missouri v. Biden, No. 21-cv-00287 (E.D. Mo.). 

Sep. 2021 The W.D. of Louisiana clarifies that it will hear the motion to dismiss and motion for preliminary junction in the upcoming hearing originally set for Sep. 16. It also resets the hearing for Dec. 7, 2021 and denies the request to hold the hearing virtually. Louisiana v. Biden, No. 21-cv-01074 (W.D. La.).

Nov. 4, 2021 Senate Republicans publish a letter requesting that the IWG share information about their decision making calculus and process. The letter criticizes the working group’s “opa[city]” as a potential detriment to the American public.

Dec. 3, 2021 Appellant states file briefs to the Eighth Circuit in the Missouri case, arguing that the lower court erred in dismissing the case on standing and that a preliminary injunction is appropriate because separation-of-powers and the APA prohibit the IWG’s the interim values. Missouri v. Biden, No. 21-03013 (8th Cir.). 

Jan. 21, 2022 As requested by the Court’s Dec. 9, 2021 Order, plaintiff states file a supplemental motion on the issue of injury. The federal government files a motion to dismiss for lack of injury. The government’s brief indicates that the IWG intends to publish its final estimates in the summer of 2022. Louisiana v. Biden, No. 21-cv-01074 (W.D. La.).

Jan. 25, 2022 EPA requests nominations for scientific experts to peer review technical support documents from the IWG on the Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases. 

Feb. 11, 2022 The Western District of Louisiana blocks the Biden administration’s use of the Social Cost metrics, citing procedural and separation-of-powers grounds for issuing the injunction. The court finds that the Biden administration must return to the Trump-era discount rates and may only account for domestic effects in its calculations. Louisiana v. Biden, No. 21-cv-01074 (W.D. La.). The Biden administration files a notice of appeal soon after. 

Feb. 15, 2022 The Competitive Enterprise Institute submits a formal request to EPA asking the agency to reconsider its recent fuel economy standards that employ the interim social cost estimates in light of the court’s injunction barring their use.  For more background on the Biden administration’s clean car rules, see our Clean Car tracker page.

Feb. 17-19, 2022 The Biden administration files a brief asking the 8th Circuit to reject the appeal by Missouri and other states. The administration argues that the states lack standing and that the suit over the interim estimates is premature. Missouri v. Biden, No. 21-03013 (8th Cir.).

March 9, 2022 The federal judge in the Western District of Louisiana denies the Biden administration’s motion to stay. Louisiana v. Biden, No. 21-cv-01074 (W.D. La.).

Mar. 16, 2022 The Fifth Circuit stays the Western District of Louisiana’s injunction pending appeal. The court finds that the states challenging the metric are unlikely to succeed on appeal because they lack standing. The court also finds that the injunction would cause the federal government irreparable harm because reliance on the metric is an important early step in agency decision-making. The Biden administration may continue to use its interim estimates pending appeal. Louisiana v. Biden, No. 22-30087 (5th Cir.). States file their reply brief in the Missouri case, alleging that they have standing and that the IWG’s interim values violate the separation of powers doctrine and federal procedural law. Missouri v. Biden, No. 21-3013 (8th Cir.).

Apr. 11, 2022 Democratic members of Congress publish a letter to US Postal Service Inspector General Tammy Whitcomb requesting the updated analysis on the Service’s ongoing fleet replacement to include social cost of carbon evaluations.

Apr. 27–May 2, 2022 The states in the Louisiana case file an application asking the Supreme Court to vacate the Fifth Circuit’s stay order. Ten of the states from the Missouri case ask the Court for permission to file an amicus brief supporting the Louisiana states. Louisiana v. Biden, No. 21A658 (2022).  

May 3-11, 2022 The Biden administration files a brief asking the Fifth Circuit to rule that the Western District of Louisiana erred in issuing the injunction. Twelve states and other advocacy organizations file amici supporting the Biden administration. Louisiana v. Biden, 22-30087 (5th Cir.).

May 9-26 2022 The Biden administration files a response opposing the application to the Supreme Court. Louisiana v. Biden, No. 21A658 (2022). The Supreme Court denies the states’ application to vacate the Fifth Circuit stay. Louisiana v. Biden, No. 21A658 (2022). The case will now continue in the Fifth Circuit.

May 13, 2022 Nine Republican Senators write a letter to OMB, the White House Council of Economic Advisers, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy asking for information on the IWG and the updated estimates.

June 16, 2022 The Eighth Circuit hears oral argument in Missouri v. Biden. No. 21-3013 (8th Cir.). In Louisiana v. Biden, appellee states file a brief arguing that they have standing and that the district court had valid grounds for issuing the preliminary injunction. No. 22-30087 (5th Cir.). 

July 18, 2022 The federal government files a reply brief in Louisiana v. Biden, arguing that the states’ brief does not demonstrate standing, in part because it is based on inaccuracies about how the estimates have been used and what EO 13990 requires. No. 22-30087 (5th Cir.).