On January 9, Adirondack Council Chairman Robert Kafin called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to drop its proposal to repeal the federal Clean Power Plan, calling the notion “illegal and unreasonable.” He urged the EPA to instead begin enforcing the plan.
His comments were part of his testimony on the impacts that the proposed repeal would have on the Adirondack Park’s environment and communities. He presented his testimony during a hearing held in Manhattan by NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio. Schneiderman and DeBlasio.
The two officials held their own Clean Power Plan hearing because the EPA had scheduled no such hearings in New York, despite evidence that a rapidly changing climate puts the entire state at risk. The officials will submit all of the testimony from the hearing to the EPA for inclusion in the official comment record.
The Clean Power Plan is a set of federal regulations requiring deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s power plants. Aside from slowing the rate of global warming, the plan was also expected to provide significant additional cuts in acid rain and smog in the Adirondacks.
Kafin is an experienced and highly respected environmental lawyer at Proskauer Rose in Manhattan and a long-time resident of the Glens Falls/Lake George region. He described what is at stake in the Adirondacks for his city-dwelling audience:
The Adirondack Park is a six-million- acre (9,300-square- mile) preserve of public and private lands comprising the largest park in the contiguous United States. The park safeguards the largest intact temperate, deciduous forest on earth. It contains more than 90 percent of all the ancient, never logged forests and 90 percent of the motor-free wilderness in the Northeast. In short, it is a national treasure.
The park’s future is endangered by a rapidly warming global climate. Climate change has already shown some of its harmful effects in the park, in the form of severe storms, flooding and extreme swings in temperature. Long term, climate change threatens the character and vitality of the park.
The federal Clean Power Plan was an outstanding opportunity to reduce greenhouse gases across the United States in a fair, effective and affordable manner. Implementation of the plan would also have brought substantial side-benefits in terms of reductions in other air pollutants, including those that cause acid rain and smog that also harm the Adirondack Park.
Congress has been unable to address the challenges of climate change through new comprehensive legislation. Thus, the US EPA needed to use its existing authority under the Clean Air Act to issue regulations in 2014 to protect public health and the environment from uncontrolled emissions of greenhouse gases from a variety of sources of air pollution. The Clean Power Plan was part of that effort.
After surviving a raft of other legal challenges, the Clean Power Plan was about to clear its final legal hurdle when the Trump administration decided last year to disavow it.
This repeal of the Clean Power Plan would leave the United States with no formal program to address the contribution to climate change from large fossil-fueled power plants, despite the clear scientific evidence that climate change is harming to people, communities and natural resources. This harm is especially evident in New York, where the effects will be felt from sea coast to the mile-high summit of Mt. Marcy in the Adirondack Park.
If it repeals the Clean Power Plan, EPA will be failing to observe its legal obligation to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from electric utility generating units. The US Supreme Court has already upheld a 2009 EPA ruling declaring that greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health. The so-called “endangerment ruling” placed a burden on EPA to set emission guidelines and standards for existing sources of air pollution such as massive fossil-fired power plants that contribute huge quantities of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
In the 1980s, New York struggled to stop the acid rain that was pouring into the Adirondacks from the smokestacks of Midwest coal-fired power plants. New York State regulators were powerless to address those emissions. So New York sued the owners of the Midwest power plants in an effort to compel them to stop harming the Adirondacks.
The prospect of significant court-awarded damages led the power companies to the bargaining table, resulting in Congressional action. The results were the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 and the federal Acid Rain Program.
New York was forced to do the same thing when the George W. Bush administration failed to enforce federal standards requiring reconstructed coal-fired power plants to meet new-plant emissions standards. Settlements in those cases ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars. They led to new federal standards for interstate transport of air pollution.
If EPA repeals the Clean Power Plan, it will be repeating the same mistakes made by prior Administrations that failed to adhere to the requirements of the Clean Air Act as passed by Congress and signed into law by prior Presidents. We are sure that Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, on behalf of our State, will have to sue power plants whose emissions are harming its people, community infrastructure and natural resources and the EPA if it fails to implement the statutory requirements. Litigation of this type would be avoided if the Clean Power Plan was left in place and activated.
Because the Adirondack Park is nowhere near the sea coast, it has rarely been perceived as a place where climate change can cause much harm. But the park is uniquely situated in the transition zone between two types of forest: the spruce and fir boreal forests typical in Canada and Siberia, and Appalachian forests consisting of mixed hardwoods, hemlocks and pines.
The park’s location on this transition zone provides homes to a broad variety of plants and wildlife, many of which don’t have other homes in New York. Many of these species may lose their last places in the Adirondack Park as the park warms. That means far less biological diversity, which translates into a slimmer margin for survival when other things go wrong, such as disease, invasive species infestations, fires and other stresses.
Our boreal forests in the northern Adirondacks are likely to retreat into Canada. That will make it harder for the park’s burgeoning moose population to remain here. It could also mean the loss of endangered species such as the spruce grouse.
Warming water means the loss of cold-water fisheries including salmon and our iconic brook trout, just now beginning its recovery from decades of acid rain. The potential loss of fish diversity is serious enough, but the losses in sport fishing also mean lost jobs, lost tourism revenue and lost retail sales. The park currently hosts 12 million annual visitors.
A warmer climate also means smaller wetlands in the Adirondacks, shrinking the park’s ability to host breeding and migratory birds, including the beloved common loon, which has become a symbol of the park’s wildness. Less boreal forest means fewer rare plants, such as the carnivorous pitcher plant and the sundew, which get their nutrition not from photosynthesis, but by trapping and consuming insects.
On our mountain summits, cold-weather habitat for rare nesting birds, such as Bicknell’s thrush and Swainson’s thrush, is shrinking steadily.
Climate also affects our lifestyle. The Adirondack Park is one of the southernmost regions in the United States where winter sports still dominate the local culture. The park has dozens of alpine and Nordic ski areas, thousands of miles of snowmobile trails, an uncountable number of skating rinks on frozen lakes and ponds. And the park has twice hosted the Olympic Winter Games.
Despite the recent short-time cold spell, climate predictions for the Adirondack Park show that, without significant reductions in the greenhouse gases, the central Adirondacks would resemble present-day Richmond, Virginia, by the end of this century.
Richmond, Virginia is not well known for winter sports.
Today, Adirondackers must contemplate a future where, absent effective public policy initiatives such as the Clean Power Plan, Whiteface Mountain is never white. It must plan for the possibility that all of our investments in winter sports will fade to nothing.
Some may assert that rising temperatures are good. They will herald a longer growing season and fewer highway accidents due to snow and ice. But there are winners and losers when long-standing natural patterns are disrupted.
A longer growing season means non-native species can survive in places that they once could not. Due to New York’s careful stewardship, the Adirondack Park is currently one of the places least affected by invasive species in the entire Northeast. Climate change threatens to undo our hard work.
While an occasional opossum in the High Peaks Wilderness may raise an eyebrow, the discovery of the hemlock wooly adelgid (uh-DELL- jid) on Prospect Mountain near Lake George last summer raised an alarm. Roughly 15 percent of the park’s trees are hemlocks. This pest is fatal to them, usually within a few growing seasons.
Deer ticks and the deer and mice that carry them are finding more room in the park due to less severe winters, allowing the spread of Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted-Fever, as well as severe tick infestations on moose.
It is clear that we need a national solution to climate change that contributes to, and sets a high standard for, a global solution. That is why New York became a national leader by co-founding the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, in which nine Northeast states participate to reduce their power plant carbon emissions by 32 percent by 2030. Since then, California has created an even more comprehensive plan to address carbon emissions from a variety of sources.
The Clean Power Plan was based on the success of the Northeast regional program, which in turn was based on the successful acid rain program.
The Plan promised two significant improvements for the Adirondacks: it would curb climate change and at the same time, provide a significant reduction in the emissions that cause acid rain and smog in New York. The Acid Rain Program already made a huge dent in the problem, but the most profoundly damaged areas of the Adirondacks still struggle to regain their vitality.
What the Clean Power Plan did, in part, was to perform a realistic accounting of the catastrophic potential costs in terms of disease, death and property damage from the continued unregulated emissions of greenhouse gases from old, existing power plants. In the absence of the Clean Power Plan those costs would continue to be borne by the public rather than by the polluters.
By requiring deep reductions in carbon emissions, or the purchase of allowances for those emissions, the Plan moved the cost of protecting the public health and the environment to the operators of dirty coal-fired power plants.
The economics of having to bear these costs of production internally would drive the operators to make decisions about how to operate – or even whether to operate – those plants. Many would either close or be converted to a cleaner fuel. The prices of natural gas and solar power would assist power plant operators in making the decisions needed to comply with the Clean Power Plan’s requirements to reduce CO2 emissions.
One beneficial outcome accompanying any conversion to other sources of fuel would be the side-benefit of a 12-18 percent drop in the sulfur- and nitrogen-based air pollution that causes acid rain and smog in the Adirondacks. Experts were hopeful that this might be enough to halt most — or all — of the continuing damage to the park’s most sensitive watersheds.
The Clean Power Plan should not be repealed. To do so would be violating the Clean Air Act. To do so would be a repudiation of sound science. To do so would reflect the failure to use proper economic analytic tools and under estimate the true costs of CO2 emissions. To do so would be a blow to the health of millions of Americans. To do so would permit the continued vandalism of the natural resources of the Adirondack Park by unregulated polluters and the unravelling of its winter recreation based economy.
I urge the EPA to withdraw its proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan, to defend the Clean Power Plan in Federal court, and to fully implement the Plan. After all, the agency is supposed to be an environmental protection agency and not a polluter protection agency.”
Founded in 1975, the Adirondack Council is a privately-funded, not-for- profit organization dedicated to ensuring the ecological integrity and wild character of New York’s magnificent Adirondack Park. The Council envisions a park with clean water and clean air, comprised of large, core wilderness areas surrounded by farms, working forests and vibrant rural communities. The Council carries out its mission through research, education, advocacy and legal action. Council members live in all 50 United States.
Photo: The Navajo Generating Station emitting flue gas emissions near Page, Arizona photo by Wikipedia user Myrabella.