A recent Environmental Protection Agency finding that greenhouse gases “threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations” prompted references to an “historic” action in many headlines and news stories.

But whether the coverage surrounding that April decision was historic in terms of its quality, depth, and thoroughness … that is another question.

The agency’s mid-April “endangerment finding” is a critical first step in federally regulating emissions of those gases from motor vehicles under the Clean Air Act.

It was a stunning, though hardly unexpected, announcement from the Obama administration that EPA intends to move forward with rulemaking even in the absence of new federal legislation. But perhaps because much of the media had already addressed the likelihood of the decision, press coverage of the mid-April announcement was largely unremarkable.

Stunning News … but not Stunning Coverage

The news itself seemed almost old: Practically since Inauguration Day, the EPA action was on reporters’ radar screens, ranging from coverage of an internal EPA PowerPoint on the subject to numerous papers’ articles about draft documents sent by EPA to the White House for review.

When it became official, EPA’s somewhat anticlimactic move to treat greenhouse gases as pollutants just may have appeared too obvious – a given under the new Obama administration – for journalists closely tracking the issue. The “endangerment” ruling in fact marked an historic shift in federal policy response to decades of evolving climate science. The first step in the rule-making process, and one many had hoped for or feared for years, the decision leads to public hearings and comments and then to proposed and promulgated rules, virtually certain to be litigated by those supporting or opposing rule making. Or, more likely, by both proponents and opponents.

A common element in much of the coverage: the EPA action is a prod to Congress, pushing it to move ahead with climate legislation lest the issue be addressed solely by regulation.

Clean Air Act regulation of greenhouse gases by EPA would be cumbersome, piecemeal, and perhaps less efficient, many news organizations reported; a new law, by contrast, could be decisive, could go beyond the mobile sources that are the focus of the EPA action, and might help reduce time-delaying litigation.

EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson raised the prospects for climate legislation in her announcement: “I believe that the right answer will come through legislation that focuses on green jobs, clean energy, and new technologies.”

‘Second-Day’ Coverage

EPA Administrator
Lisa Jackson

Several stories on the announcement focused not so much on the historic nature of EPA’s decision but on what it would mean – impacts on climate legislation and, usually briefly, impacts on business.

An Associated Press story, for instance, quoted Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Ca), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, that the EPA finding was “a wake-up call to Congress.”

The Washington Post‘s Juliet Eilperin quoted Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass), co-author of the key House climate bill to regulate greenhouse gases: “It is now no longer a choice between doing a bill or doing nothing. It is now a choice between legislation and regulation.”

John Broder of The New York Times set the decision in context of recent history. He also quoted a critic of the finding, Senator Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo) as saying, “The Obama administration’s actions today will do more to endanger families, farmers and workers with new energy taxes and lost jobs than it does to protect the environment.”

Forbes.com writer Andy Stone, in “What the EPA’s Ruling Means for Business,” suggested that the momentous finding would boost clean technology. He also quoted a particularly gloomy Bill Kovacs, vice president of environmental affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: “No one will benefit from the ruling. The cost of operating a business would increase dramatically.”

Wall Street Journal reporters Jonathan Weisman and Siobhan Hughes provided useful context for the decision: “New regulations driven by the finding could be years away. But unless superseded by congressional action, the EPA ruling eventually could lead to stricter emissions limits. Businesses that stand to be affected range from power plants and oil refineries to car makers and cement producers.” The story also reported that the EPA decision is prompting Consol Energy Inc., in Pittsburgh, to delay two coal mining projects.

WSJ Editorial: Most Media
‘Barely Noticed … Largely Applauded’

Among those skeptical of climate science and the need to regulate, the EPA decision unleashed a predictable outcry. In an editorial, The Wall Street Journal likened the EPA actions to someone’s holding a gun to President Obama’s head. The Journal editorial also took a shot at how the media, in general, covered the EPA finding, saying that the press had ignored the story. “This is a momentous decision that has the potential to affect the daily life of every American, yet most of the media barely noticed, and those that did largely applauded,” the newspaper editorialized.

An “historical” ruling, a number of news outlets had headlined their stories on the EPA’s April 17 endangerment finding. But in many ways, numerous news organizations – both those that covered the decision and those that, let’s say, covered it less than comprehensively – did not provide historically outstanding coverage and analysis.

And yet, the EPA announcement itself is just one step in a long string of major climate developments over the past few years involving the Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, California’s greenhouse gas waiver request so it could regulate those vehicle emissions, and Obama’s election victory and his subsequent nomination of administration officials committed to attacking the climate challenge. And just the first step among many important ones still to come.

There will be lots of important regulatory, legislative, and private sector initiatives still to come. And lots more opportunities for media to provide a quality of coverage commensurate with the importance of the issue.

Christine Woodside is a writer and editor based in Deep River, Connecticut. She started her career in 1981 in Philadelphia, first as a news clerk at the Philadelphia Inquirer and then as associate editor...