Monday, June 2, 2014

EPA Takes Historic Action on Climate Change

380px-Carbon_Dioxide_400kyrToday’s announcement that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released draft greenhouse gas emission reduction regulations for over 1,000 existing power plants is a major landmark in environmental history. EPA estimates that 83% of greenhouse gas emissions are from carbon dioxide (C02) released into the atmosphere.

As a group these coal-fired power plants are the single largest sources of C02 pollution in the U.S., producing nearly 25%. These new rules expect to produce a 20% reduction in C02 emissions at these plants by 2020 and 30% by 2030 (based on 2005 levels).

For President Obama this marks the realization of a reelection campaign pledge to confront climate change and start the transition from a fossil fuel driven economy and American lifestyle. He talked about C02 reduction in his radio address last weekend. Here’s video of EPA Administrator Gena McCarthy’s address made this morning.

A historic effort on climate change

There hasn’t been much good news on the climate change front. The new EPA C02 rules mark the biggest climate change effort ever advanced by a U.S. President. Congress had refused to work on any climate change legislation, leaving President Obama with little choice other than administrative rule making. The C02 rules announced today will be finalized and fully implemented before Obama leaves office in January 2017.

Today’s launch of a national C02 reduction program is a historic landmark. This marks the beginning of U.S. action on climate change. This action is similar to the creation of the national Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Wilderness Act and Endangered Species Act. This is a major moment in U.S. environmental history.

According to the EPA these are the basic facts. The making of electricity produces 32% of C02 emissions in the U.S. followed by the transportation sector at 28%, industry at 20%, commercial/residential at 10% and agriculture at 10%. The biggest fuel source used for the production of electricity is coal, which while it supplies 39% of electricity made, it produces 75% of CO2 emissions from the electricity sector. About 29% of electricity in 2012 was generated using natural gas, which has grown by the hydro-fracking boom, followed by 20% from nuclear and 12% from renewables. Coal-fired power plants are the single biggest “stationary source” of C02 pollution emissions as they produce fully 25% of U.S. C02 pollution.

How will this program work?

The new program is partly modeled after the success of the 1990 Clean Air Act (CAA) amendments, which inaugurated the cap-and-trade program. This is a system whereby a “cap” is set for the maximum allowable amount of pollution in tons for a polluter, based on science, and which can be modified over time if the environment is not adequately protected. The “trade” creates a framework whereby individual companies choose to either reduce emissions by making investments in pollution controls (or switching fuel sources) or to purchase “pollution credits” on the open market that allows them to pollute above their cap level. Companies that invest if deeper emissions controls can recoup their investments by selling credits each year for the amount they yield under their cap. This system was pioneered by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), here’s a good Q&A on the history of C02 pollution controls and how the new EPA program is likely to work.

Cap-and-trade has resulted in significant reductions in acid rain, lowering pollution levels to a point where once fishless lakes and ponds in the western Adirondacks can now support fish again. Cap-and-trade programs are currently in effect for sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxide (the key pollutants in acid rain). Under the C02 regulations, the EPA will set the caps for each facility.

The rules also require significant action by the states. Each state will be required to develop a state plan for the facilities within their borders. These plans are similar to other CAA plans that states have developed over the years. In one big difference with the recent Medicaid expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), where some states have opted out of offering this program to state residents, the C02 regulations have no opt-out provision. If a state chooses not to develop a plan that meets EPA approval, then the EPA will develop and implement a plan for that state. An important factor in this program is that no state can opt out.

Another aspect of the state plans is that it brings the climate change issue to every governor and every state environmental agency. They will be involved one way or the other and industry and advocates will work at the state level to implement a variety of loopholes and programs for steeper reductions. While this will certainly allow for more conservative states to slow-walk implementation, this new program will bring climate change discussion, advocacy and action to every state.

What is the timeframe for implementation? EPA will start taking public comments on the draft C02 regulations right away. This will follow all public process rules for public review and comment. These draft rules may go down in history as the most commented upon ever with total comments in the tens of millions. The EPA C02 regulations will be finalized in June 2015. State plans will need to be finalized by June 30, 2016.

Analysis of these new C02 regulations

First, the EPA’s authority to enact these regulations is settled law. The George W. Bush era EPA attempted to eliminate C02 as a pollutant to be regulated under the Clean Air Act (CAA). The CAA has always included C02 as a pollutant to be regulated, but never promulgated regulations. In Massachusetts v. EPA the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that C02 could be regulated by the EPA. While there will certainly be legal challenges to the EPA’s regulations once finalized, implementation cannot be blocked.

Second, this affirms cap-and-trade as the environmental regulatory law of the land. Expect to see a new batch of similar control efforts for other pollutants.

380px-The_green_house_effect.svgThird, while the new EPA C02 regulations start with the biggest single source of C02 pollution – coal fired power plants – this is only the beginning of widespread C02 emission controls. Hopefully, other sectors will be phased in over time to tackle emissions in the transportation sector and also for building construction and operation.

The transportation sector produces the second most C02 pollution after electricity production. The White House and EPA have pointed out that today’s emission controls for utilities accompany Obama’s actions in 2011-2012 on automobile mileage standards, which seeks to make 50 miles per gallon the U.S. standard by 2025. The EPA projects massive C02 reductions from these enhanced mileage standards., which many see as at the vanguard of the climate change advocacy movement, is dedicated to bringing carbon levels down to a level of 350 parts per billion in the atmosphere and maintaining that level. In 2013, the planet’s carbon levels exceeded 400 ppb for the first time. Today, carbon levels have steadily moved above 400 ppb. Bill Mckibben says that the increase from 350-400 ppb melted the Arctic. Recent reports showed that the Antarctic is melting at unprecedented rates. Clearly, bold action is needed.

International trends show only three countries have reduced C02 emissions from 1990 levels – Germany, Great Britain, and the Netherlands. U.S. emissions have come down since 2000, but are up significantly from 1990 levels. China’s C02 emissions have increased 5-fold. U.S. per capita emissions stood at 17 tons of C02 per American in 2012, second only to Australia. British per capita emissions were half the U.S. rate.

The most fascinating aspect of this is the mandate for the state plans. This means that states need to develop their own programs for reductions or form regional partnerships. New York is part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), started in the Pataki era. It has been successful for a decade, though New Jersey Governor Chris Christie pulled New Jersey from the program. Clearly, RGGI provides a framework for regional action to meet the EPA’s new requirements. Hopefully, these new regulations catalyze New York to bolder action on the C02 reduction front.

Many have gone to pains to state that these new EPA C02 reduction regulations are in no way, shape or form a national energy plan. So far, national leaders have been unable to bridge the enormous divides that prevent action. Hence, U.S. energy policy is now ad hoc, state and industry driven, which will undermine long-term expansion of renewables.

Compare U.S. actions here with that of Germany. As mentioned above the U.S. gets 12% of its energy from renewables. In the first quarter of 2014, Germany got 27%. They have accomplished this through a national program that is based on making solar power production affordable for homeowners, farmers and small businesses.

By stimulating a massive household solar production system, the Germans have become the world’s largest producer of solar panels. The new EPA C02 reduction rules for power plants will be challenged in court relentlessly by industry and red state leaders. This may slow the implementation, but EPA leaders are confident that the new rules cannot the blocked.

This morning Gena McCarthy said that the risks of climate change were clear, the science is clear, and the costs of inaction are clear.



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Peter Bauer is the Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks. He has been working in various capacities on Adirondack Park environmental issues since the mid-1980s, including stints as the Executive Director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and FUND for Lake George as well as on the staff of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century. He was the co-founder of the Adirondack Lake Assessment Program (ALAP) in 1998, which has collected long-term water quality data on more than 75 Adirondack lakes and ponds. He has testified before the State Legislature, successfully advocated to pass legislation and budget items, authored numerous articles, op-eds, and reports such as "20% in 2023: An Assessment of the New York State 30 by 30 Act" (2023), "The Adirondack Park and Rural America: Economic and Population Trends 1970-2010" (2019), "The Myth of Quiet, Motor-free Waters in the Adirondack Park" (2013), and "Rutted and Ruined: ATV Damage on the Adirondack Forest Preserve" (2003) and "Growth in the Adirondack Park: Analysis of Rates and Patterns of Development" (2001). He also worked at Adirondack Life Magazine. He served as Chair of the Town of Lake George Zoning Board of Appeals and has served on numerous advisory boards for management of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve. Peter lives in Blue Mountain Lake with his wife, has two grown children out in the world, and enjoys a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities throughout the Adirondacks, and is a member of the Blue Mountain Lake volunteer fire department.Follow Protect the Adirondacks on Facebook and Threads.

8 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    “The EPA C02 regulations will be finalized in June 2015. State plans will need to be finalized by June 30, 2016.”

    Then you have 3 and a half years to decrease emissions by 20 % by 2020??

    Ambitious goals but probably not realistic.

  2. Charlie S says:

    “As a group these coal-fired power plants are the single largest sources of C02 pollution in the U.S.”

    >> 200 million cars on the road,or off the road idle with their engines running spewing carbon emissions,cannot help matters.

    “Today’s launch of a national C02 reduction program is a historic landmark…”

    >> Yeah but it’s just a little step it’s an increment.It’s not enough!

    “Recent reports showed that the Antarctic is melting at unprecedented rates. Clearly, bold action is needed.”

    >> We have bold leaders but their actions are always geared towards serving the rich….those who funnel in millions of dollars towards their campaigns.Until campaign financing is done with it is going to be an uphill battle trying to do what’s right….which is to leave a habitable planet behind when we’re gone for those who are yet to be.

    “This morning Gena McCarthy said that the risks of climate change were clear, the science is clear, and the costs of inaction are clear.”

    >> Bill McKibben said this 15 years ago.Nobody listens.Or at least those who should be listening don’t.

  3. Justin says:

    This is particularly great news for the Adirondacks, assuming more coal-fired power plants upwind get shut down, as it will further reduce the amount of sulfur, nitrogen and mercury still poisoning our woods and waters. The recovery that has occurred since the early 1990s has been thrilling to see. Dead lakes coming back to life… brook trout records broken on what seems to be an annual basis… I’m really looking forward to witnessing the second chapter. Oh yes, and I’m happy that something serious is being done about carbon emissions and climate change, but that positive impact will be much harder to discern.

  4. PNB says:

    To make up for the coal plants we will have to put hydro electric plants on the Moose, Indian and Hudson Rivers in the Adirondack Park plus about 1000 wind turbines in the park plus triple our electric rate.

    • Justin says:

      No, we simply have to continue the transition from coal to much cleaner natural gas, while developing renewable alternatives.

      If you don’t want your electric rates to go up, tell Republican leaders to stop pushing for the export of our natural gas.

      Environmentalists need to do their part by recognizing that natural gas has to be part of the transition, and they should be pushing for greater monitoring, regulation and oversight of fracking, rather than mindlessly opposing it no matter what.

      • Wayno says:

        Its not just the Republicans pushing to export natural gas, I read an editorial supporting it in the NY Times. This would be a crime. We finally have an opportunity to be energy independent with an inexpensive fuel source and the greedy extractors only can think about maximizing their profits.

  5. Wayno says:

    Should have happened 20 years ago when it would have made a significant difference. Our failure to address climate change in a timely manner and the continued refusal on the part of the polluters and their right wing stooges to believe the climate scientists will be a stain on our legacy long after the baby boom passes on.

  6. Outlier says:

    Gina McCarthy has a BA in Social Anthropology. I wonder what it took to convince her that “the science is clear”? Maybe she was thinking of the political science.