EPA Opens an Absurd Front in the War on Coal
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy once declared that she “didn’t go to Washington to sit around and wait for Congressional action. Never done that before, and don’t plan to in the future.” May 1, 2010, quoted in CNS News, March 4, 2013. EPA’s recently proposed rule on ‘carbon pollution’ from new coal-fired power plants is a perfect example of this mind-set and her seemingly fervent belief that “greenhouse gas pollution, through its contribution to global climate change, presents a significant threat to Americans’ health and to the environment upon which our economy and security depends.” Testimony U.S. House of Representatives, June 29, 2012.
On September 20, 2013, EPA issued proposed uniform national limits on the amount of ‘carbon pollution,’ (i.e., carbon dioxide) that future power plants will be allowed to emit. The proposed rule comes at a time when there has been a documented pause in ‘global warming’ over the last 16 years and a growing consensus that the climate models predicting dire results from carbon emissions grossly overstated the risks. Nevertheless, Ms. McCarthy’s EPA is opening new fronts in the war on coal.
At the heart of the proposal is a requirement to limit carbon emissions through carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which EPA calls the best system of emission reduction (BSER). Generally, new plants would be allowed to emit approximately 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour.
The rule has been roundly criticized, mainly for being completely superfluous. EPA stated that “even in the absence of this rule” current and future economic conditions “mean that few, if any, [coal-fired plants] will be built in the foreseeable future” and that “electricity generators are expected to choose new generation technologies (primarily natural gas combined cycle) that would meet the proposed standards.” As a result, “EPA projects that this proposed rule will result in negligible CO2 emission changes, quantified benefits, and costs by 2022.” Proposed Rule, p. 16-17. In other words, the rule will result in negligible benefits, including carbon dioxide reductions, because cheaper natural gas will inhibit construction of coal-fired plants. Ironically, the main reason natural gas is cheaper is the explosion in the use of hydraulic fracturing, a practice opposed by many who support this proposed rule.
Why, you may ask, is EPA expending its resources on writing and issuing a rule that will, by its own admission, produce ‘negligible CO2 emission changes’? Because, according to EPA, carbon pollution “threatens the American public's health and welfare by contributing to long-lasting changes in our climate that can have a range of negative effects on human health and the environment.” Proposed Rule, p. 17. Thus, it is “important to take initial steps to control the largest emissions categories without delay.” Proposed Rule, p. 345.
Another basis for criticism is that the CCS technology has not yet been implemented at a coal-fired plant. EPA identified three coal-fired plants built since 2007 and noted that none utilized CCS technology. Although the existing technology used by these plants would reduce carbon pollution (although not as much as the chosen standard noted above), EPA stated that choosing existing technology instead of CCS would not serve the Clean Air Act’s purpose of achieving “as much [emission reduction] as practicable.” Proposed Rule, p. 202. EPA chose CCS because it is “the most promising option to achieve significant reductions in CO2 emissions.” Proposed Rule, p. 202.
EPA’s ‘war on coal’ continues, even to the point where EPA proposes rules that have ‘negligible’ impacts on the very problem it seeks to remedy. But, as Ms. McCarthy noted, she did not come to Washington to just sit around. Apparently, based on the content and future effect of the proposed rule, she came to make work for EPA employees and issue rules that have no practical effect but take the ‘proper’ stance against global warming.
John B. King is a partner with Breazeale, Sachse & Wilson LLP in Baton Rouge, La. His practice relates mainly to environmental regulatory permitting and compliance. Prior to joining the firm in 2003, he served as chief attorney for enforcement for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.