Clean Power Plan- An Ambitious Plan with Serious Legal Issues

On August 3rd, the Obama Administration and U.S. EPA released the much-anticipated final Clean Power Plan designed to curtail greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change.  The regulations promise to be the most comprehensive, complex and costly regulatory program ever launched without specific authorization from Congress.   

How the Plan Works

The final plan calls for a 32% reduction in the amount of 2005-level carbon emissions that existing power plants must eliminate by 2030.  How does EPA achieve the reductions?

Performance Rates

EPA establishes both interim and final CO2 emission performance rates for two subcategories of fossil fuel-fire electric generating units (EGUs):

  • Fossil fuel-fired electric steam generating units (coal and oil-fired power plants); and
  • Natural gas-fired combined cycle generating units

Interim performance rates must be met between 2022 and 2029.  The final emission rate by 2030.

The EPA reviewed prior determinations made under Section 111(d) regarding "best system of emissions reduction" (BSER) that has been demonstrated for a particular pollutant and a particular group of sources by looking at technologies already being used.  

Statewide Goals

The rates were established geographically by applying three different strategies to existing fossil fuel power plants. Those building blocks include the following:

  1. Operate Existing Coal Fired Power Plants More Efficiently- reducing carbon intensity of electricity generation by improving the heat rate of existing coal-fired power plants.
  2. Switch from Coal to Natural Gas-  substituting increased electricity generation from lower-emitting existing natural gas plants for reduced generation from higher-emitting coal fired power plants.
  3. Switch from Coal to Renewable Energy- substituting increased electricity generation from new zero-emitting renewable sources (like wind and solar) for reduced generation from existing coal-fired power plants.

By applying the building blocks to the existing plants, EPA determined the average coal plant can reduce emissions in from 2,160 pounds of CO2 per MWh down to 1,305 pounds/MWh by 2030.  Natural gas combined-cycle plants can go from 894 lbs/MWh to 771 lbs/MWh by 2030.  

The emissions rates are then used to establish state wide goals based upon the mix of existing coal and natural gas power plants in the state.  

States can also elect to use a rate-based goal or a mass-based target.  With mass-based targets, the states will have a total amount of CO2 emissions in 2012 and a final goal for 2030.  In otherwords, total metric tons of CO2 emission will be calculated for the 2030 versus individual plant average emission rates.

What are some the pro's and con's of rate-based versus mass-based?  EPA believes mass-based will be slightly cheaper to comply with and will allow for emission trading.  Whereas, rate-based allow overall emissions to increase with economic growth (i.e. all power plants must average a certain carbon intensity).

State Complaince Plans

State can elect from a variety of strategies to meet these goals.  Examples of strategies include:

  • Develop renewable energy sources
  • Switch to natural gas from coal-fired power plants
  • Build nuclear or increase production from nuclear
  • Energy efficiency programs
  • Emission trading (i.e. cap-and-trade programs)

Important Changes from Draft to Final Rules

Emission reductions are phased in between 2022 and 2030.  This was in response to criticism by states that the original plan demanded reductions too quickly.

As discussed below, EPA dropped energy efficiency out of concern it weakened the legal authority for the plan. 

The final plan shows more favor toward renewable energy sources to the detriment of natural gas. The final rule calls for 28% (instead of 22%) of all power generate to come from renewable energy sources.

The final rules gave an extension to states to submit compliance plans, from 2016 to 2018.  Also, compliance periods were pushed out from 2020 to 2022.

Legal Basis for the Rules

Fifteen states, including Ohio, have pledged to challenge the legal authority for the Clean Power Plan in Court.  Nine other states have pledged to defend it.  

EPA asserts that it has broad authority under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act - New Source Performance Standards (NSPS)- to craft the rules.  At issue is the definition of the term "standard of performance" as used in Section 111.  Does that term apply to the plant itself or can EPA use it to set standards for each state in terms of emissions from its power sector?

Opponents argue the EPA authority under Section 111(d) is limited to requiring certain technologies be installed at the plant itself.  Opponents argue that fuel switching, renewables and a trading program are all well beyond its authority.  If the opponents are successful in their challenge, the fundamental building block of the Clean Power Plan will be eliminated.

The final rule removed one of the strategies proposed for meeting reduction goals- energy efficiency. Many commentators speculate that EPA removed this component from the plan because it was the least legally defensible under Section 111(d) authority.

Another challenge to EPA's authority will be that Section 111(d) only applies to new sources.  The Clean Air Act Section 112 provides EPA the authority to regulate existing power plants.  Section 112 covers regulation of hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) from existing power plants.

EPA argues there is ambiguity between Section 111(d) and Section 112.  Therefore, where the Clean Air Act contains ambiguity, the Agency argues it entitled to deference so long as it articulates a "reasonable interpretation" of the provision.  See, Chevron USA Inc. v. Natural Resource Defense Counsel.

Chevron was the at issue in the recent MATS decision discussed in my prior post.  In that instance, the Supreme Court held that EPA went way beyond a "reasonable interpretation" of its authority.  However, in other instances, such as the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, the Court found the EPA did articulate a "reasonable interpretation."  Therefore, it is hard to review the prior Supreme Court cases and discern definitive guidance as to whether the Court would uphold the Clean Power Plan.

The Supreme Court has shown a willingness to support EPA's effort address climate change.  First, the Court upheld EPA determination that greenhouse gases were pollutants regulated under the Clean Air Act in Massachusetts v. EPA. Second, it upheld the major components of EPA initial greenhouse gas regulations in its Tailoring Rule- UARG v. EPA.  While the Court upheld major components of EPA's authority to address climate change, the Clean Power Plan is the most ambitious effort to date.

Making matters more difficult to predict how the Supreme Court may rule is the lack of case law interpreting EPA's authority under Section 111(d).  

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