[WONK ALERT] The focus recently has been on the Obama Administration's Clean Power Plan, which regulates greenhouse gas emissions from existing electric power generation units, and which will soon be the subject of a blizzard of litigation. So far, the central argument from the challengers has focused on a drafting glitch in the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act. There is a conflict between the House and Senate versions of the 1990 bill that never got resolved, with one of the bills saying that power plants are exempt from regulation under section 111(d) (the statutory basis of the Clean Power Plan) if the same "source category" is regulated under section 112, which covers hazardous pollutants other than the core "criteria" pollutants. The EPA position is that neither house of Congress intended that, just because power plants are regulated for pollutants like mercury under 112, they are exempt from regulation of different pollutants like GHGs under section 111(d). My own view is that the EPA has the far better side of that argument, which is reminiscent of the argument about federal subsidies for state-run health insurance exchanges that failed in King v. Burwell last year.
What may be the bigger problem for the Clean Power Plan, however, are the rules adopted a couple of years ago for new power plants, the "new source performance standards," which are also the subject of litigation. If the new source standards go down, the Clean Power Plan will fall with them. The problem with the new source standards is that they have to be based on the "best" system of emission reductions, and for coal plants, the technology chosen is carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). CCS is iffy at best, and expensive for sure, and opponents are arguing that it does not meet the test, and that the real EPA motivation is to kill coal altogether. The arguments risk becoming unmoored from reality, because the consensus view is that, for other economic reasons, no one is going to build a new coal plant anytime soon, CCS or not.
UCLA's Megan Herzog has a post on Legal Planet that goes through the issues with the new source rule in greater detail, and, for those willing to wade through the statute and the technical arguments, it is a good summary.
Good summary in Business Week. Glencore, whose shares are down 71% this year and against whom traders are demanding upfront payments because of fear of default, is, of course, the primary backer of the PolyMet project.
Avid readers of this blog will recall that I recommended Mr. Wagner's book from last year, Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet. Wagner is the lead senior economist at the Environmental Defense Fund.
An interesting paper shows how this "collective action" observation has become a central part of the conservative Republican talking points opposing any effort to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions. (We just saw this again with the House Republican letter to attorney general Lori Swanson asking that she join states like West Virginia to oppose the Obama Administration's Clean Power Plan.) But the paper goes on to show how the collective action problem is less severe than it might appear, and that the real problems are that the benefits of good climate policy are delayed, but the costs are concentrated (and more immediate). The paper suggests ways of framing the arguments for better climate policy to reflect those barriers to change.
The science advisory panel at the EPA had recommended a standard in the 60 to 70 ppm range. Many environmental and public health groups will express disappointment that the standard was not made tougher yet, because of the documented link between lower levels of exposure and adverse health outcomes.
In Minnesota, this new standard puts us closer to falling out of compliance with the Clean Air Act. We have been aware of this for some time, and MCEA has been part of Clean Air Minnesota, a business/government/NGO collaboration to try to implement voluntary actions to reduce so-called ozone "precursors." Those efforts are reasonably well-conceived, and there has been some corporate support. Businesses understand that avoiding "nonattainment" is very important financially, because compliance with nonattainment rules is expensive and difficult. So far, however, there has been little to no public funding. An appropriation for non-point air emission reduction projects would be a welcome addition to any 2016 supplemental budget bill.
The New York Times reported yesterday that there is a huge blue-green algae bloom in the Ohio River (and, again, in western Lake Erie), which is quite dangerous to human and animal health. The cause is phosphorus and nitrate runoff from agriculture. Apparently, the amount of pollution isn't any greater this year, but weather conditions that can be linked to climate change--wet springs, longer hot summers--are the most likely reason a major pollution problem in Ohio has become a massive pollution problem this year. We have a lot of polluted rivers in Minnesota, and the interaction with changing weather conditions may well exacerbate our problem as well.
In California, Governor Brown responded by announcing that he was going forward anyway. "We don't have a declaration in statute, but we have absolutely the same authority. We're going forward. The only thing different is my zeal has been intensified to a maximum degree." And this past week, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) took steps under the state's existing low carbon fuel standard to put the oil consumption reduction goal into rule.
In Minnesota, not so much. The promise is that the "Climate Strategies and Economic Opportunities" (CSEO) effort will start up again "sometime this fall." The Administration tells the Public Utilities Commission that it can and should defer deciding on the fate of the two biggest coal-burning power generation facilities for at least a couple more years, when the evidence says those units can both be closed by 2023 at no extra cost to consumers. And Administration officials continue to divert attention from Minnesota's own statutory goals for reducing carbon emissions in favor of the far less ambitious targets from the Obama Administration.
The rhetoric is not matching the reality. Can't we do better?
Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy
26 East Exchange Street, Suite 206
St. Paul, MN 55101 | (651) 223 - 5969