Consientious energy companies find that they can comply with EPA regulations


carbon-emissionsThe Arizona Republican has published a series of editorial opinions this year attacking EPA regulations and the effects on Arizona Public Service (APS) and Salt River Project (SRP). See, for example Editorial EPA wants us to change? Show us the bill first; We have the right to know cost of new EPA rules; Editorial Sinema, Kirkpatrick make a wise carbon vote; and New EPA clean-air rules threaten rural power co-ops.

The “editorial board” largely reflects the views of the Rush Limbaugh of The Republic, Doug MacEachern, See for example, EPA regulations good for economy? Bah!, and EPA emissions regulations coming down to cost. Got to keep your major advertisers happy and promote those Republican talking points.

Funny thing about those EPA regulations: those states that have sought to comply with the regulations have found that they can comply with the regulations. The Washington Post reported last week that Outrage over EPA emissions regulations fades as states find fixes:

Even after years of talk about a “war on coal,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell startled some of his constituents in March when he urged open rebellion against a White House proposal for cutting pollution from coal-fired power plants.

The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan is “extremely burdensome and costly,” the Kentucky Republican said in letters advising all 50 states to boycott the rule when it goes into effect this summer.

The call for direct defiance was unusual even for McConnell, who has made a career of battling federal restrictions on coal. Yet more striking is what has happened since: Kentucky’s government and electric utilities have quietly positioned themselves to comply with the rule — something state officials expect to do with relatively little effort.

In this coal-industry bastion, five of the state’s older coal-burning power plants were already scheduled to close or switch to natural gas in the next two years, either because of aging equipment or to save money, state officials say. As a result, Kentucky’s greenhouse-gas emissions are set to plummet 16 percent below where they were in 2012 — within easy reach of the 18 percent reduction goal proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency in a draft of the agency’s controversial carbon-cutting plan.

“We can meet it,” Kentucky Energy and Environment Secretary Leonard Peters, speaking at a climate conference, said of the EPA’s mandate.

The story is the same across much of the country as the EPA prepares to roll out what is arguably the biggest and most controversial environmental regulation of the Obama presidency. Under the Clean Power Plan, states will have to find ways to achieve dramatic cuts in carbon pollution over the next 15 years, with reduction quotas topping 50 percent over 2012 levels for some states. But despite dire warnings and harsh political rhetoric, many states are already on track to meet their targets, even before the EPA formally announces them, interviews and independent studies show.

Iowa is expected to meet half of its carbon-reduction goal by next year, just with the wind-power projects already planned or in construction. Nevada is on track to meet 100 percent of its goal without additional effort, thanks to several huge ­solar-energy farms the state’s electricity utilities were already planning to build. From the Great Lakes to the Southwest, electric utilities were projecting huge drops in greenhouse-gas emissions as they switch from burning coal to natural gas — not because of politics or climate change, but because gas is now cheaper.

“It’s frankly the norm,” said Malcolm Woolf, a former Maryland state energy official and now senior vice president for Advanced Energy Economy, an industry association that includes electricity providers and major manufacturers. While some power companies have logistical concerns about meeting the EPA’s targets, Woolf said, “we’ve yet to find a state that is going to have a real technical challenge meeting this.”

States’ interest in the EPA’s Clean Power Plan has soared in recent weeks as the agency prepares to reveal the final contours of a proposal that was first announced more than a year ago. Administration officials have been meeting privately for weeks to craft a final version that will withstand legal and legislative challenges. One senior administration official said the revised plan will include provisions that will make it easier for most states to comply.

“The administration has made it clear that there will be changes that will increase flexibility to allow states to meet the standards,” said the official, who insisted on anonymity in discussing ongoing deliberations.

The essentials of the regulation are expected to remain unchanged: In a major step to reduce the pollutants linked to climate change, the Obama administration will require states to reduce carbon pollution by a certain percentage — the exact rate varies depending on each state’s mix of power sources and current levels of fossil-fuel emissions — by 2030.

The plan’s highly touted “flexibility” is a key selling point. Under the EPA’s proposal, each state has the option of devising its own strategy for cutting carbon, based on local circumstances and economic considerations. One state may opt to phase out older coal-burning power plants, while another might seek to expand the use of solar and wind energy. Or a state might add new energy-efficiency programs to cut electricity consumption.

If a state makes no attempt to come up with its own plan — as McConnell has advised — the EPA can impose its own, made-in-Washington plan.

Critics of the EPA plan, including McConnell, say the flexibility provisions are a mirage. Soon, opponents say, states will find themselves bound to mandatory pollution cuts that will make electricity costs soar, hurting consumers and costing jobs — especially coal-industry jobs.

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Opponents are organizing to defeat the proposal across multiple fronts. In addition to McConnell’s efforts to organize a boycott, a number of states have joined a lawsuit challenging the legality of the proposed rule. Members of Congress from both political parties have supported measures to block or delay the measure’s implementation.

“We are witnessing the Obama administration wage an all-out assault on our energy abundance, deploying the EPA to do whatever it takes to shut down fossil-fuel-fired power plants across the country,” said Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), sponsor of a bill that would delay the proposal’s implementation and allow states to opt out without penalty.

Five governors have taken up McConnell’s call to “just say no” to the EPA’s proposal. Five are Republicans — including presidential contenders Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

Yet, even in states that have joined lawsuits against the measure, state regulators and utility companies are hedging their bets, drawing up plans for carbon-cutting to avoid having to accept a plan crafted by the EPA.

“Our utilities don’t want a federal plan; they want a state plan they can control,” said John ­Lyons, Kentucky’s assistant secretary for climate policy under outgoing Gov. Steve Beshear (D). “We have an obligation to the next administration to prepare.”

The coal industry still wields enormous political power, defended by a mostly Republican congressional delegation that has vowed to save coal-mining jobs by blocking burdensome regulation. McConnell, shortly before taking the Senate majority leader’s post early this year, declared that his No. 1 priority was to “do whatever I can to get the EPA reined in.” In eastern coal towns, a common roadside sign still urges voters to “Fire Obama” and “Stop the war on coal.”

Yet, scattered throughout the state are other signs that point to decreasing dependence on coal, moving the state closer to meeting its emissions targets.

Early this month, the coal furnaces at Louisville Gas & Electric Co.’s Cane Run power plant — a towering structure on the banks of the Ohio River — shut down for good, replaced by a new unit that burns cheaper natural gas. The switch occurred in the month when natural gas officially surpassed coal nationwide as the No. 1 fuel for electricity production, government figures show.

[T]hese days, even mountaintop mining is in steep decline. Since 2008, the number of mine permits has dropped 62 percent, reflecting an overall drop in domestic demand for coal, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

Appalachia’s coal fields are also losing to competition from other parts of the country. An ever greater share of U.S. coal production now comes from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, where the coal seams lie just below the surface and can be recovered without expensive tunneling or mountaintop removal. The number of coal-related jobs in Kentucky has fallen from 48,000 in 1980 to 18,000 in 2013, with an even steeper drop forecast for the coming decades. A 2009 study by the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that Appalachian coal production was on the cusp of a “period of irreversible decline.”

With the likelihood of a coal resurgence increasingly in doubt, some Kentuckians are questioning whether the energy expended in fighting coal regulations would be better applied to bringing new kinds of industries to the state’s coal counties, where measures of poverty, health care and life expectancy are among the most dismal in the country.

“They blame Obama for everything,” said Stanley Sturgill, 70, a retired miner from Lynch, a village near Kentucky’s eastern border with Virginia. “But he’s only been in office for six years, while these other politicians have been around for 30 years or more, and their pockets are full of coal money. They’ve been riding the coal train and not bringing anything back.”

The Carbon Monopoly’s strategy of litigating the EPA to death in court is also failing. The authority of the EPA has consistently been upheld, even when the courts tell the agency to rework some of its regulations. Think Progress reports, Why The EPA Says They Are Happy About Losing In Court This Week:

If you just read the headlines, it looks clear that the Environmental Protection Agency suffered a loss in court this week.

On Tuesday, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals told the agency that it must loosen some of its restrictions on air pollution that crosses state lines. In 13 states, the court ruled, the EPA’s limits on sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions that drift over into other states were too strict. Now, the EPA must go back and rewrite how those states should comply with the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, also known as CSAPR (pronounced “casper”).

That’s obviously not great news for the agency, but in a statement to ThinkProgress, the EPA said it was “pleased” with the result.

Indeed, for the EPA, there are two silver linings within Tuesday’s ruling. The more obvious one is that, despite the fact that it has to go back and re-do some of it, the rule itself was upheld. Brought by a number of states, the court case had been trying to eliminate the rule entirely, arguing that the EPA didn’t have the authority to tell them to reduce their emissions for the benefit of other states. The D.C. Circuit rejected that argument, noting the Supreme Court had strongly affirmed the rule last year.

In other words, the agency may have to re-write some states’ emissions targets, but it doesn’t have to re-do the entire thing. And while it’s re-writing those parts, the 13 states still have to comply with the rule.

“EPA is pleased that the court decision keeps the Cross-State Rule in place so that it continues to achieve important public health protections,” an agency spokesperson said in an email. “The Cross-State Rule was promulgated to address a serious problem and continued implementation of the rule will lead to significant benefits for human health and the environment.” The EPA estimates the rule will achieve $280 billion in annual health benefits by preventing up to 34,000 premature deaths, 15,000 nonfatal heart attacks, 19,000 cases of acute bronchitis, 400,000 cases of aggravated asthma, and 1.8 million sick days a year.

The second silver lining is less obvious. Tuesday’s ruling, some attorneys say, adds a bit more padding to the idea that courts like to uphold EPA regulations most of the time — even if they find the regulation to be partially flawed. For example, when the Supreme Court found flaws with the EPA’s Mercury Air Toxics rule last month, it didn’t invalidate the rule — it merely sent it back to the D.C. Circuit for review. The D.C. Circuit could very well invalidate the rule, but some attorneys say it’s likely that it will be upheld, and the EPA will be told to make some fixes.

“The best alternative to a flawed protection isn’t no protection, it’s better protection,” Earthjustice attorney Neil Gormley, who represented intervenor groups in the mercury case, told ThinkProgress. “So that’s why courts are giving the EPA the opportunity to fix errors instead of invalidating those rules entirely.”

The fact that courts have been wary to invalidate EPA rules is a good sign for the agency’s controversial climate regulations, which are expected to be finalized as soon as next week. Because once those regulations are finalized, they’re expected to be subject to a barrage of lawsuits seeking to invalidate them, both from the coal industry and from coal-heavy states.

But environmental groups are confident that the EPA will come away from those legal challenges largely unscathed.

“EPA has an excellent track record in court, and the Clean Power Plan should be sustained against expected attacks,” said David Doniger, director of the Climate and Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a press release on Thursday.

In that same statement, Sierra Club Chief Climate Counsel Joanne Spalding agreed. “EPA has won each round to date and its winning streak is likely to continue because the Clean Power Plan is on solid footing,” she said.

“It often is the case when rules are challenged that the agency might not come away with 100 percent on everything,” Howard Fox, an Earthjustice attorney who worked on the CSAPR case, told ThinkProgress. “But that doesn’t mean it’s a loss. You have to look at the big picture.”