EPA’s Carbon Pollution Standard — One Step Closer to Policy Disaster

Source:  Global Warming. Org

by Marlo Lewis

Today (June 25th) is the deadline for submitting comments on the EPA’s proposed Carbon Pollution Standard Rule, which will establish first-ever New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil-fuel electric generating units.

The proposed standard is 1,000 lbs of CO2 per megawatt hour (MWh). The EPA claims that 95% of all new natural gas combined cycle power plants can meet the standard — maybe, maybe not. One thing is clear — no conventional coal power plant can meet the standard. Even today’s most efficient coal power plants emit 1,800 lbs CO2/MWh on average.

A coal power plant equipped with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology could meet the standard, but the EPA acknowledges that  CCS is prohibitive, raising the cost of generating electricity by as much as 80%.

So what the proposal is really telling the electric utility industry is this: If you want to build a new coal-fired power plant, you’ll have to build a natural gas combined cycle plant instead. Not surprising given President Obama’s longstanding ambition to “bankrupt” anyone who builds a new coal power plant.

In a comment letter submitted today on behalf of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, I recommend that the EPA withdraw the proposed regulation for the following reasons:

  1. The EPA’s proposal would effectively ban construction of new coal-fired power plants, a policy Congress has not approved and would reject if proposed in legislation and put to a vote.
  2. The proposal is an underhanded ‘bait-and-fuel-switch.’ The EPA assured electric utilities in March 2011 that it would not require fuel-switching from coal to natural gas. Had the EPA come clean about its agenda in 2010 and 2011, Senators Murkowski and Inhofe would likely have garnered more support for their efforts to overturn the agency’s greenhouse gas regulations.
  3. The proposal relies on weird contortions – a consequence of the EPA’s attempt to use the Clean Air Act as a framework for regulating greenhouse gases, a purpose for which the Act was neither designed nor intended. For example, the EPA pretends that natural gas combined cycle – a type of power plant – is a “control option” and “system of emission reduction” that has been “adequately demonstrated” for coal-fired power plants.
  4. The proposal will provide another precedent for establishing National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for greenhouse gases, taking America one step closer to policy disaster.

A word of explanation about point #4. The EPA argues that it need not undertake a new endangerment finding to adopt the proposed standard, because the agency already determined in December 2009 that “air pollution” related to greenhouse gas emissions “may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health and welfare.” But if that is so, then the EPA also need not make a new finding to initiate a NAAQ rulemaking for greenhouse gases.

Since the EPA defines the relevant “air pollution” as the “elevated concentrations” of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (Endangerment Rule, p. 66516), the agency would have to set the NAAQS below current atmospheric levels. Picking up on this logic, the Center for Biological Diversity and 350.Org petitioned the EPA more than two years ago to establish NAAQS for CO2 at 350 parts per million (roughly 40 parts per million below current levels) and other greenhouse gases at pre-industrial levels.

Sooner or later, the EPA will have to address the NAAQS issue. Statutory logic (and precedent, if the Carbon Pollution Rule is not overturned) will favor the CBD/350.Org petition.

The potential for mischief is hard to exaggerate. The Clean Air Act requires States to adopt implementation plans adequate to attain a “primary” (health-based) NAAQS within five or at most 10 years. Implementing a CO2 NAAQS set at 350 parts per million would require a much higher degree of economic sacrifice than would be demanded by either the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill or the Copenhagen climate treaty, which aimed to stabilize CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases at 450 parts per million by 2050. Even if the NAAQS for CO2 did not require much of the economy – all fossil-fuel-based power generation, manufacture, transport, and agriculture – to simply shut down, it would effectively prohibit growth in those sectors.

Nonetheless, some good may yet come from the EPA’s overreach. A policy crisis over NAAQS regulation of GHGs would finally make clear to the public and their elected representatives that Massachusetts v. EPA created a constitutional crisis by authorizing the EPA to enact policies that Congress has not approved and would reject if proposed in legislation and put to a vote.

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