By Brian Sewell
This fall, public listening sessions held by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency served as an opportunity to influence future rules to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, the centerpiece of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.
Comments submitted by citizens and stakeholders, and the large turnouts and media attention at the 11 listening sessions in cities including Atlanta, Chicago and Philadelphia, reflect the high level of public support and condemnation of the EPA.
On Nov. 7, the day of the final listening session, a coalition of environmental groups held a press conference and marched with supporters to EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C., where the session was held.
Since the scheduled cities were announced, Appalachian legislators and members of the media criticized the EPA for not scheduling listening sessions closer to Appalachia — a region crucial to the debate surrounding the administration’s plans to cut carbon.
On the Charleston Gazette blog “Coal Tattoo,” Ken Ward Jr. reminded readers that when previous EPA administrator Lisa Jackson announced curbs on mountaintop removal permitting, she promised that federal agencies would coordinate with state and local entities to help “diversify and strengthen the Appalachian regional economy and promote the health and welfare of Appalachian communities.”
A listening session with EPA “would give coalfield residents a chance to ask EPA what they’ve done in this regard,” Ward wrote, and could offer the agency a chance to learn that “not everyone in the state is totally against doing something about climate change or trying to work toward more clean energy.”
“The Obama administration cannot create a responsible 21st-century energy and climate policy that overlooks the ongoing exploitation of mountain communities by coal and gas companies,” says Thom Kay, legislative associate with Appalachian Voices, the publisher of The Appalachian Voice.
“Allowing coal plants, the single largest source of carbon pollution in our country, to dump billions of tons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere every year is an unmitigated disaster,” Kay says. “The question is not whether the EPA should be placing limits on carbon pollution from power plants — they are legally obligated to. The question is, why aren’t they already?”
In 2007, a Supreme Court majority decided that greenhouse gases fit well within the Clean Air Act’s definition of an air pollutant, giving the EPA the authority and the obligation to regulate emissions. In June 2012, a federal appeals court upheld that decision and dismissed industry arguments that the scientific evidence for climate change was unsupported.
The EPA will seek additional public input during a comment period once it announces guidelines for existing plants in June 2014. Those rules must be finalized by June 2015.
While the EPA hears from the public on rules for existing coal-fired power plants, some members of Congress are focused on the agency’s more immediate plan to regulate carbon from new plants. A draft bill circulated by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., would allow power plants to continue dumping unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air.
Manchin claims that his proposal will still combat climate change, but would remove the EPA’s ability to set limits on carbon pollution and leave that up to Congress. Rules for existing coal plants would be designed around what Manchin called “commercially feasible” technologies.
A letter signed by 42 groups including Appalachian Voices states that Manchin’s proposal raises a series of impossible barriers for the EPA, and shows that Manchin and Whitfield either “do not believe in climate change, or they do not care about its impacts.”
Under the proposal for new plants released by the EPA in September, coal-fired units would need to meet a limit of 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour, far less than the average for U.S. coal plants, which is 1,768 pounds per megawatt-hour.
According to the EPA, however, the proposed standards are in line with investments in clean energy technologies that are already being made in the power industry. The EPA says that the rule will “reduce regulatory uncertainty by defining requirements for emission limits for greenhouse gases” and that the agency “intends this rule to send a clear signal about the current and future status of [carbon capture and storage] technology.”
David Hawkins, the director of climate programs with the Natural Resources Defense Council, testified in opposition to Manchin’s proposal, which environmental groups call the “Polluter Protection Act.” Beyond being a major weakening of the Clean Air Act, Hawkins said the proposal would destroy utilities’ incentives to invest in emissions-reducing technologies.
The Energy and Commerce Committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., agreed with Hawkins during a subcommittee hearing on the proposal. Waxman cited common technologies such as power plant scrubbers that cut sulfur dioxide emissions, which industry supporters once said were impossible, and pointed out that “Almost every time the EPA proposes a significant new requirement, industry tells us it can’t be done.”