Environmental update

Environmental update

September 01, 2014 | By Andrew Skroback in New York

New proposed rules that the US Environmental Protection Agency issued in early June to limit greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants have been met with both a chorus of praise and a political and legal battle intent on defeating the proposed rules or delaying their implementation.

A coalition of 12 states sued EPA in federal court in August to try to derail the rules. The 12 states all rely heavily on coal. They are Alabama, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming. The latest suit follows another suit filed in June by Murray Energy Corporation, one of the nation’s largest privately-held coal mining companies.

These lawsuits, and those that will inevitably follow, begin what is sure to be protracted litigation testing whether the government has authority under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act to pursue reductions in carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants in the manner it proposes. EPA has proposed individual carbon dioxide emissions rates for the power sector in each state, and the states would then have to find ways to meet the standards.

The plaintiffs argue that the proposed rules are illegal because power plant emissions are regulated under another section of the Clean Air Act. The US Senate and House arguably had different and unreconciled interpretations of how emissions from stationary sources like power plants could be regulated under the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act. Both lawsuits argue that if an industry is regulated under section 112 of the Clean Air Act, as power plants are, then it cannot also be regulated under section 111(d) as EPA seeks to do under its proposed rule.

The government response is that if a pollutant is not regulated under section 112, as is the case with carbon dioxide, then it can be regulated under section 111(d). EPA is expected to ask the courts to dismiss the lawsuits, relying on the deference traditionally given to federal agencies to interpret ambiguous statutes.

Public Hearings, Praise and Protest

The rules limiting greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants are expected to be reissued in final form by June 1, 2015, and states have to submit their plans to the EPA by June 30, 2016 for approval. In advance of both deadlines, the agency is required to hold public hearings and receive and respond to public comments. EPA held its first public hearings on the proposals in several cities, including Atlanta, Denver, Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh. Protestors showed up at several of the hearings. The agency has received close to a million comments, most by email.

Critics of the new proposed rules say they will cause some coal-fired power plants to close, killing jobs and hurting the economy. They also argue that the US cannot go it alone on global warming (ignoring the efforts being made by European countries), while the broader world is using more coal and more fossil fuels every day. EPA was also criticized for not holding hearings in states that rely most heavily on coal. The coal industry says the new rules would largely preclude states from relying on coal to generate electricity. Industry groups have called on EPA to conduct additional economic analyses before issuing a final rule.

Environmental groups argue that industry has historically overestimated the cost of complying with air pollution regulations in an attempt to scare the public. Coal-fired power plants are the single largest domestic source of greenhouse gas emissions in the nation. Many environmental groups are pushing for greater emissions reductions from the power sector through increased investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency and demand reduction programs.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that its new rules for existing power plants would reduce green-house gas emissions by 30% by 2030 from 2005 levels at a cost to the power industry of $8.8 billion through 2030. However, it also sees between $55 billion and $93 billion in offsetting savings in health care costs by 2030. It says it has given states enough flexibility in determining how to meet their individual goals that states that use coal currently could continue to do so.

Many state regulators support the EPA rules, but some states that need their legislatures to pass new laws are asking the agency for more time to comply. Some southern states are also asking the agency to give them more credit for actions they have already taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The comment window will remain open through October 16.

United Nations Climate Summit

President Obama will attend a one-day global leader summit on climate change on September 23, 2014 at the United Nations. The focus of the summit is an international agreement that world leaders hope to reach in 2015 on how to address climate change. The summit will be held as part of the 69th session of the UN General Assembly, which runs from September 16 to 29 in New York.

The climate summit will allow world leaders to make additional pledges in advance of the 2015 international climate negotiations in Paris. The hope is that an agreement can be reached in Paris on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to limit global temperature increases to two degrees above current levels.

Any global climate agreement that would not go into effect until 2020.

The world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases, China and the US, recently pledged to work cooperatively toward a global climate change agreement in 2015. These pledges were made during a strategic and economic forum in Beijing in July. Carbon emissions have begun to decline slightly in a number of wealthy countries, including the US, but the gains are being lost to emissions from rising economic powers like China and India.

Chinese Solar

China added 3,300 megawatts of new solar generating capacity in the first six months of 2014. Of this amount, 2,300 megawatts were utility-scale photovoltaic power plants. Distributed solar made up the rest. This is double the new capacity additions in all of 2013. China now has 23,000 megawatts of solar capacity. China is making a push to install more renewable energy to help address its significant air pollution problems.