In a much anticipated move, the Trump Administration has proposed the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule as a replacement for the Obama Administration Clean Power Plan (CPP).  While the CPP was controversial from the start for it broad regulation of the power industry, the ACE rule will be controversial as it signifies a 180 degree turn from aggressive climate change regulation of the energy sector.

Overview of CPP

The CPP was finalized on October 23, 2015.  The fundamental goal was to reduce CO2 emissions from the energy sector (one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions) by 32% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels.  The reductions were to be achieved through significant emission reductions from coal power plants coupled with incentives to move toward renewable energy and energy efficiency.

The CPP was touted a being flexible by giving states freedom to choose among various “building blocks” to achieve the necessary reductions.  States could either choose to regulate emissions from individual power plants or set a statewide cap of total CO2 emissions from its power sector.

Each state was given its own target for reductions (i.e. hard cap on emissions).  Under the rule, states must submit their plans (referred to as State Implementation Plans or SIPs) by 2018 and start achieving reductions by 2022.  If a state failed to adopt an approvable SIP by the deadline, EPA would impose its own Federal Implementation Plan (or FIP) to achieve the necessary reductions.

The CPP was controversial from the start. Many believed the structure of the plan as an overall regulation of the energy sector went significantly beyond EPA’s legal authority. The entire CPP hinged on the EPA’s authority under Section 111 of the Clean Air Act.  Under Section 111, the CPP set emissions standards across the entire energy sector thereby changing the mix of production to natural gas and renewables. The  crux of the legal challenge to the CPP was that Section 111 only allowed EPA to impose controls at individual power plants (i.e. within the “fence line”), not broadly across the energy sector. In February 2016, in a rare move, the Supreme Court issued a stay of the effectiveness of the CPP while the legal challenges to the CPP were heard in lower courts.

Why Replace the CPP?

The Trump Administration exited the United States from the Paris Agreement, the international accord on climate change.  President Trump and former Administrator Pruitt repeatedly questioned whether climate change was occurring.  Trump called the CPP a “job-killing regulation.”  Then why not simply repeal the CPP  with no replacement?

To repeal the CPP, the Trump Administration must go through the formal rulemaking process.  The Administration would have to justify, legally, why it is getting rid of the plan.  Complicating any effort to simply get rid of climate change regulation of the power sector was the Supreme Court prior ruling in Massachusetts. v. EPA  that the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions was required under the Clean Air Act.  Furthermore, the Obama Administration had already asserted that Section 111 of the Clean Air Act provide EPA the legal authority to regulate CO2 emission from power plants.  Therefore, given the prior Supreme Court ruling and EPA’s prior legal statements, it would be very difficult for the Administration to develop a legal justification for why there should be no regulation of CO2 emissions from the power sector.  The Administration likely decided a more prudent move would be to replace the CPP with a more flexible and less stringent rule.

Affordable Clean Energy Rule

The ACE rule reconsiders EPA’s authority under Section 111 of the Clean Air Act.  While EPA still maintains it has authority to regulate C02 emissions, it believes that authority is limited to requiring specific improvements at individual coal fired power plants  (i.e. within the “fence line).  The standards in ACE are based on a list of candidate heat rate improvement measures (either technologies or operational changes).  ACE removes the push toward natural gas and renewables.  ACE also removes the ability of states to set statewide CO2 caps on emissions as well as the trading program that would have allowed states to trade amongst themselves to more cost effectively achieve necessary emission reductions.

Under the ACE rule, each state must develop custom compliance schedules that include the selected emission standard and compliance deadlines.  States must submit the plans for EPA’s review within three years of the final EPA rule.  This effectively pushes the compliance deadline for states from 2018 under the CPP to likely 2022.  However, units are given up to 24 months to comply, which effectively pushes compliance deadlines further to 2025.

ACE also aims to encourage energy efficiency by redefining the applicability of the New Source Review (NSR) rules for power plants.  Under NSR, a facility must apply for a permit every time there is a “major modification” to an existing plant.  Under the existing NSR rule a change to facility is considered a “major modification” by measuring the change in annual emissions.  Critics of this approach argue this actually discourages energy efficiency upgrades because: 1) utilities may not adopt energy efficient upgrades due to the lengthy permitting process required; and 2) utilities may want to run plants that are more efficient more often and determining whether a upgrade constitutes a “major modification” based on annual emissions discourages increased operation of more efficient plants.  ACE proposes to change the measure for major modifications to an hourly emission test.  This change could greatly reduce the applicability of NSR to existing plants thereby avoiding the lengthy permitting process and encouraging operations of more efficient plants.  Critics argue NSR ensured the plants could not extend there useful life without adopting new emission reduction technologies.

Despite the radically different approaches to regulate CO2 from the power sector, EPA projects that the reductions under ACE are very similar to CPP.  This is because market forces will continue to push more closures of coal fired power plants as the country moves more to natural gas.  However, critics argue ACE contains no hard cap on emissions, therefore, the projected reductions are not guaranteed.

What is Next for CPP and ACE?

ACE must undergo a sixty day comment period before the rule can be finalized.  If ACE is made final, numerous legal challenges will certainly ensue.  Once again, the future of climate change regulation in the United States will be decided in the courts.

The D.C. Circuit Court of appeals issued a major rebuke to those who believe climate change is no longer relevant in environmental reviews.  In Sierra Club v. FERC, No. 16-1329 (D.C. Cir. Aug. 22, 2017), the Court agreed with environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) failed to adequately analyze greenhouse gas emissions as part of a $3.5 billion dollar natural gas pipeline project.  The project involves construction of a 500 mile long pipeline through Florida.   

FERC Review Authority

The Natural Gas Act (NGA) provides FERC the authority to review and approve interstate pipeline projects, including the environmental impacts associated with the project.  Section 7 of the NGA requires the pipeline owner to obtain a "certificate of public convenience and necessity" from FERC (i.e. Section 7 Certificate).  One component of the Section 7 review is compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) which includes FERC’s preparation of an "Environmental Impact Statement" (EIS).  

The Sierra Club argued that the FERC, in performing it EIS, failed to adequately consider the impacts of emission of greenhouse gases associated with the project.  Specifically, the pipeline would supply natural gas to power plants in Florida which would generate additional greenhouse gas emissions by burning natural gas.  

The Court said NEPA required FERC to consider both direct and potentially indirect impacts from those emissions.  

  • Direct Impacts– quantitative estimate of the downstream greenhouse
    emissions that will result from burning the gas transported by the pipeline or explain in detail why such a estimate cannot be provided;
  • Indirect Impacts- the court did not specify what indirect impacts, which leaves open the question of whether the EIS must analysis whether greenhouse gas emissions will result in more severe storms, agricultural impacts, etc.

Impact of the Decision

First, the decision demonstrates greenhouse gas issues are still alive and well.  FERC must take steps to analyze greenhouse gas emissions as part of its EIS review.  

Second, the decision doesn’t mean the Court took a negative view of natural gas pipelines.  In fact, the Court specifically stated there can be both negative and positive impacts in terms of greenhouse gas emissions from these project.  For example, burning natural gas made available via the pipeline may allow higher emitting coal fired power plants to shut down thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions overall.

Third, perhaps the biggest impact will be seen on challenges to other projects that must get FERC approval.  The requirement to include evaluation of impacts of projects on greenhouse gas emissions could result in other projects being successfully challenged in Court and may also delay some projects in order to allow required analysis to be included as part of the EIS.

With the surprising and sad news over the weekend of Justice Scalia’s passing, many critical decisions before the Supreme Court suddenly got more interesting. This is certainly the case with the Clean Power Plan. 

Last Week, in the first time in history the Court issued a stay of the effectiveness of the rule while the rule was still under challenge in the lower D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.  This was a highly unusual move both because the D.C. Circuit denied to grant the stay and because the Court never had taken the step previously.  Many speculated that the Supreme Court’s decision signaled the likelihood that the Clean Power Plan would not survive the legal challenge.

The stay was issued in a 5-4 decision along ideological lines.  It seemed likely that the Court’s ultimate decision as to the legality of the rule would be issued along similar ideological lines.

With Justice Scalia’s passing, the Supreme Court is now split down the middle, with four liberal justices and four conservative justices. 

What this ultimately means for the Clean Power Plan is somewhat uncertain, depending on the timing of the appeal.  First, it appears unlikely the Court will revisit the stay that was issued last week.  This comment appeared in the Atlantic Monthly:

"There is currently no reason to assume the Court will revisit the stay order," said Richard Lazarus an environmental-law professor at Harvard, "It is final as voted by the full Court at the time and is not subject to revisiting any more than any other rule by the Court before the Justice’s passing."

Second, it appears more than likely that the case will be heard by the Supreme Court before a justice can be appointed to replace Justice Scalia.  Based upon the political rhetoric that has ensued since news broke regarding Justice Scalia’s passing, it appears highly unlikely that the Senate will confirm a new appointee by President Obama.  Also, based on current timing, with a decision expected this fall by the D.C. Circuit and a decision next spring by the Supreme Court, it also appears very unlikely the new President will have a replacement Justice confirmed before the Court issues its decision.

I had commented in my previous post on the Supreme Court’s decision to issue the stay that the D.C. Circuit’s decision on the merits regarding the legality of the rule was merely advisory. This comment was based on the assumption the Supreme Court would hear any challenge an render the ultimate decision on the legality.

Assuming no new justice is appointed before the Supreme Court hears the challenge to the Clean Power Plan, the D.C. Circuit Court’s decision would likely decide the fate of the ambitious Clean Power Plan. Assuming no new Supreme Court Justice is appointed, and assuming the Court does vote on the legality of the plan along ideological lines, this could mean the Court would be deadlocked in a 4-4 tie.  If this were to occur, the D.C. Circuit Court decision on the merits would likely be the law of the land.  

The current panel at the D.C. Circuit seems to favor upholding the Clean Power Plan.  The case will be decided by a three judge panel.  Justices Judith Rogers (a Clinton appointee) and Karen Henderson (a George H.W. Bush appointee) have been inclined to vote in favor of EPA’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gases in prior Court decisions.  The third Judge- Sri Srinivasan is an Obama Appointee.

With developments over the weekend, it appears the most significant piece of environmental regulation in decades may have new life.

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).  

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the next major climate change decision in Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA (UARG).  In reading commentary across the web it appears most think the Court’s decision isn’t really a big deal.  After all, the Court upheld EPA’s permitting authority to regulate greenhouse gases (GHGs) from stationary sources.  This from the Guardian:

"The US Supreme Court largely upheld Barack Obama’s plans to cut carbon pollution from power plants on Monday, delivering critical support for his climate action plan."

The Court’s ruling did limit EPA authority, but most commentators note that the difference in covered emissions is only 83% of the sources instead of 86% of the sources.  So, really what is the big deal?

The Court’s ruling is, in fact, a very big deal for two principle reasons:

  1. The Court held EPA has discretionary authority to regulate GHGs under major source permitting authority, not a mandate as EPA claimed; and
  2. The Court took EPA off its frightening path of ever increasing regulation of smaller and smaller sources of GHGs.

The news media have largely focused on the 83% versus 86% figure in concluding EPA got most of what it wanted.  However, the impact of the decision is more complicated then this simple figure. A review of how EPA got before the Supreme Court is important in order to understand the significance of its ruling. 

Massachusetts v. EPA

The Supreme Court already determined that EPA had authority under the existing terms of the Clean Air Act to regulate GHGs.  At issue in the Court’s landmark decision in Massachusetts v. EPA
was the language in Section 202(a)(1) of the Clean Air Act (CAA) which requires the Administrator of EPA to set emission standards for "any air pollutant" from motor vehicles "which in his judgment cause(s), or contribute(s) to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health and welfare."

Back in 2003, the Bush Administration was trying to delay or avoid regulating GHGs under the Clean Air Act.  One action it took was to deny a petition from twelve states and several cities to regulate GHGs under Section 202(a)(1).  EPA took the position that it did not have the authority to regulate GHGs under the CAA and EPA should be more deliberate before embarking on such a massive regulatory expansion.

In a 5-4 climate decision, the Court ruled against the Bush Administration in Massachusetts v. EPA. The Court pointed to the extremely broad definition of "air pollutant" under the CAA and held that EPA was required to evaluate whether GHGs endanger public health and welfare (i.e the so called "Endangerment Finding")

Following the ruling, the Obama Administration attempted to pass comprehensive climate change legislation (cap and trade).  One argument the Administration used to support the proposed legislation was  the threat that without such legislation it would have no choice but to move forward with promulgating rules under the existing CAA.  Even then the Obama Administration commented that the CAA was ill-suited to regulate GHGs.

While legislation was close to passing, health care was the priority, and cap-and-trade died in the Senate.  The Administration soon moved forward with its Endangerment Finding and regulation of GHGs from motor vehicles.

Point of No Return?

EPA has asserted that once the rulemaking process under the Clean Air Act was initiated, there was no turning back.  EPA argued that once it issued its Endangerment Finding and GHGs became a "regulated pollutant" under the CAA, other regulatory provisions under the Act pertaining to stationary sources were automatically triggered.  

Of grave concern was the stationary major source permitting provisions (PSD and Title V programs) which were triggered anytime a source emitted 250 tons or, in case of Title V, 100 tons of a pollutant.  While these thresholds only captured truly large sources when applied to emissions of traditional pollutants, this would not be the case with GHGs.

EPA warned that applying the 100/250 ton threshold to GHGs would result in an unprecedented expansion of regulatory authority over even small sources.  In fact, thousands of previously unregulated sources would be captured and EPA would be overwhelmed with the new permits.  

When EPA was questioned as to why it would embark on regulating GHGs under the PSD and Title V programs when it would cause such dramatic results, EPA said it had no choice.  The Agency claimed the plain language of the Act as well as the decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, legally compelled the Agency to regulate GHGs under the PSD and Title V programs.

In an effort to mitigate the impact of such regulations, EPA published the Tailoring Rule.  EPA said the rule was necessary due to the fact application of the 100/250 tons threshold to GHGs would produce "absurd results."  Therefore, due to these absurd results, EPA claimed it had authority to tailor the thresholds to more practical thresholds.  

EPA’s Tailoring Rule set the GHG trigger at 100,000 tons per year of GHGs and 75,000 tons for existing sources making major modifications.  However, EPA clearly stated that its authority to rewrite the CAA in this manner was only temporary and over time it would be forced to apply the 100/250 tons threshold to GHGs.  In other words, EPA would eventually regulate thousands of new small sources of carbon emissions.

Supreme Court Finds EPA has Discretion But Cannot Rewrite the Clean Air Act

On June 23, 2014, in another 5-4 climate change ruling, the Supreme Court found EPA (as well as the D.C. Circuit Court) were incorrect when it asserted regulation of GHGs from motor vehicles mandated regulation of GHG emissions from major sources under the PSD and Title V programs. The Court held EPA had a choice whether to regulate GHGs under the PSD and Title V program.

The Court also ruled that EPA could not rewrite the CAA through its Tailoring Rule raising the 100/250 trigger thresholds to 100,000 tons.  The Court ruled that the absurd results that would come from application of the 100/250 ton threshold to GHGs really meant the PSD and Title V requirements were not meant to apply to sources solely on basis of their GHG emissions.  Rather, new pollution controls to address GHGs would only be required if the source emitted a previously regulated pollutant over the 100/250 ton threshold (so called "Anyway Sources").

Why the Ruling is So Significant

First, the Court has invalidated EPA’s Tailoring Rule.  The Court said the history behind the 100/250 ton threshold established by Congress showed the legislature’s intent that they not apply to pollutants such as GHGs.  As a result, regulations will not be slowly ratcheted down to cover thousands of previously unregulated sources.  

Second, the Court clearly held that EPA has discretion whether to include regulation of GHGs under the PSD and Title V programs.  It is much easier to justify a large regulatory expansion when you can argue it is mandated under the law.  The Court’s decision eliminates that justification.  This means the Agency actions to regulate GHGs under the PSD and Title V programs could be undone by a future Administration.  

 

 On September 30th, the Congressional Research Service released a very interesting report titled "EPA Standards for Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Power Plants: Many Questions, Some Answers."  The report was prepared as a review of the effect of recent new Clean Air Act regulations on existing and future coal fired power plants.

How New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) Were Triggered for Coal Plants

Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, greenhouse gases have been considered a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.  As a pollutant, EPA has regulatory authority to reduce emissions under the existing authority provided under the Act if it determined regulation was necessary.

In December 2009, EPA followed the Supreme Court decision with its "endangerment finding" with regard to emissions of GHGs. The finding was that GHGs "may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health and welfare" as a result of climate change.  This key finding triggered the requirement to regulated GHGs under the Clean Air Act.

According to EPA, coal fired power plants roughly account for one third of all man made GHGs emissions in the United States.  Under Section 111 of the Clean Air Act, EPA must set air emission standards for categories of sources that cause or contribute significantly to air pollution.  As the largest source of GHGs, EPA was legally required to move forward with establishing regulations under Section 111.

Once EPA establishes NSPS standards for new sources, under Section 111(d) it must then promulgate NSPS standards for existing sources.

EPA Establishes NSPS Regulations for New Coal Fired Powered Plants 

In 2012, EPA initially proposed NSPS standards for new coal fired power plants.  The EPA received a large number of comments and decided to re-propose NSPS standards in September 2013.  

The re-proposed standard would set a limit of 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) per megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity generated for coal fired electric generating units (EGUs).  The EPA also set a standard of 1,000 or 1,100 lbs/MWh for new natural gas fired boilers.  The effect of the rule is that new coal fired power plants would have to basically have equivalent emissions to a natural gas plant.

EPA stated in its proposal that a new coal fired power plant produces roughly 1,800 lbs. CO2/MWh. Therefore, new plants would need to achieve a 40% reduction in emissions to be equivalent to natural gas plants.

The only technology that could possibly achieve a 40% reduction is carbon capture and storage (CCS).  However, CCS poses a number of unique challenges.  First, it roughly uses 30% of the energy a plant would generate to transport and store the CO2 below ground.  Second, industry argues that it is still not a proven technology.

The "War on Coal"

Industry believes the EPA’s NSPS proposal for new coal fired power plants effectively ensures no new plants will be constructed.  Between the lost efficiency in having to transport and store C02 and the lack of reliability of CCS as a control technology, coal will no longer be competitive with natural gas for future electric generating units.  For these reasons, the industry has argued that EPA is engaged in a "war on coal."

EPA argues that the technology has been proven and the rule is necessary in order to motivate industry to improve CCS technology.  EPA cites to prior examples where the Clean Air Act spurred technological development at much less cost than anticipated.

While the fight over the NSPS standard for new plants is intense, the real issue is EPA’s future promulgation of an NSPS standard applicable to existing sources.  The average coal-fired power plant is approximately 40 years old.  Requiring CCS on plants that are close to retirement seems highly unlikely.

EPA seems to be suggesting that the NSPS for existing sources will push for efficiency improvements in order to reduce emissions rather than CCS.  Even if the NSPS for existing sources is more flexible than for new plants, it will still increase compliance costs for existing coal plants.  

Key Observations in the CSR Report 

The Congressional Report regarding EPA’s NSPS standards concludes that the argument over the "war on coal" is largely symbolic.  The report notes that the cheap cost of natural gas is really causing the shift away from coal power, not EPA regulations.  The report notes:

"The debate over EPA’s proposed carbon pollution standard for new power plants is largely symbolic, and is characterized by exaggeration on both sides.

  • It is symbolic because this rule by itself will have little impact.  Its real significance is that without the promulgation of a rule for new sources, EPA cannot, under the Clean Air Act, proceed to regulate existing sources.  It sis the standards for those existing plants that may actually reduce the nations’ GHG emissions, and in the process, could have significant impacts on coal-fired electricity.
  • It is exaggerated because both EPA and the affected industries describe the rule itself as having far more impact than it will.

"Gas is projected by most experts to be cheap and abundant for the foreseeable future.  Since the early 1990’s, new coal-fired plants have accounted for less than 10% of new power-generating capacity.  In these conditions, the electric power industry is likely to continue what it has already been doing for two decades:  building gas-fired plants (or relying on renewable sources) when it needs new capacity."

"The coal industry is unhappy with this, and has tended to place the blame for its current difficulties on EPA; but, actually, the market is the key factor in coal’s recent decline…The net result is that coal is simply not competitive with natural gas in most areas."

With so much intensity surrounding the debate regarding EPA’s NSPS standard for new coal fired power plants, the report serves as reality check.

Last month, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected challenges to U.S. EPA’s Tailoring Rule which establishes the permitting threshold for greenhouse gas (GHG) pollutants.  On July 3rd, EPA issued a rulemaking that will maintain the current GHG thresholds for the immediate future.  The question is how long before environmental groups push EPA to lower the thresholds?

Tailoring Rule

Pursuant to the Clean Air Act, any facility that emits more the 100/250 tons per year of a pollutant regulated under the Act must go through EPA’s New Source Review  (NSR) program.  As part of NSR, new sources or existing sources that are modified must demonstrate they have installed Best Available Control Technology (BACT) to reduce emissions of each regulated air permit.

Once EPA promulgated the Tailpipe Rule to control GHG emissions from vehicles, GHG’s became a "regulated pollutant" for purpose of NSR.  Once GHGs became a  "regulated pollutant" any source that emits GHGs above applicable thresholds would trigger NSR.

Because GHGs are emitted in much greater quantities than typical Clean Air Act pollutants, EPA was concerned that application of the 100/250 ton per year threshold to GHGs would trigger thousands of permits. EPA and the States did not have the capacity to process that number of permits. 

To address the situation, EPA promulgated the Tailoring Rule to temporarily raise the permitting thresholds.  Under the first stage of the Tailoring Rule, new facilities that emit 100,000 tons per year of carbon dioxide-equivalent and existing facilities that increase their emissions by 75,000 tons per year of carbon dioxide-equivalent will trigger NSR.

EPA Must Eventually Lower GHG Thresholds

In the July 3rd action, EPA said that the States and EPA did not have the capacity to process additional NSR permit that would be required if it lowered the threshold.  Therefore, it kept the trigger thresholds at 100,000 and 75,000 tons per year. EPA pointed to the economy’s impacted on federal and state budgets as one reason that permitting authorities lacked additional capacity to process a greater number of permits.

EPA has announced that it will study the burdens associated with lowering GHG thresholds by April 30, 2015.  EPA has said, following completion of the study, that it will review the permitting thresholds and determine if they should be lowered by April 30, 2016.

The EPA must eventually lower the thresholds.  The 100/250 ton per year trigger threshold for NSR is in the Clean Air Act.  EPA amend the trigger threshold through rulemaking (i.e. the Tailoring Rule).  To support the Tailoring Rule, EPA relied on legal precedent that EPA says provides it authority to adjust the statutory thresholds through rulemaking temporarily.

How Long Before EPA is Pressured to Lower the Thresholds?

In their comments to EPA’s proposed rule, environmental groups urged EPA to lower the permitting thresholds.  In an article appearing in BNA, David Doniger, policy director for the Natural Resource Defense Council’s (NRDC) Climate Center, indicated the organization would support EPA position…for now.

“Certainly, this holding things level knocks the legs out from under the feverish claims that EPA was on the march to get to hotdog stands,” Doniger said. “This signals that there’s great reluctance on EPA’s part to get beyond the largest sources.”

While the NRDC and other groups are willing to hold off for now, its clear that their expectation is EPA will lower the thresholds in 2016.  It will be very difficult for EPA to maintain that there is no ability to process additional permits by that date. 

EPA Applies Plantwide Applicability Limits (PALs) to GHGs

A PAL is a site-specific plantwide emission level for a pollutant that allows the source to make changes at the facility without triggering the requirements of the PSD program, provided emissions do not exceed the PAL level.  Instead of a facility having to analyze each emission unit as a potential modification that may exceed NSR thresholds, the PAL says as long as overall plant emissions form all sources do not exceed the PAL, the facility will not trigger NSR.

In the July 3rd rulemaking, EPA is  revising the PAL regulations to allow for GHG PALs to be established on a CO2e basis.  This should provide more flexibility and reduce the number of permits that would otherwise be triggered through plant modifications.

 

In perhaps the biggest environmental decision in decades, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld all aspects of EPA’s complex regulation of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.  Each piece of EPA regulation was controversial, yet the Court validated the overall approach paving the way for future action by EPA. 

Flashback several years ago, when the Obama Administration stated its preference was to enact cap-and-trade legislation to address climate change.  The Administration it preferred Congressional action rather than using the authority under the Clean Air Act which it saw as ill-suited for regulation of GHGs.  In an attempt to encourage a reluctant Congress to act on the controversial legislation, EPA threatened that it would proceed with enacting regulations under its existing Clean Air Act authority.   

Congressional efforts to pass cap-and-trade failed, while EPA continued to march forward with regulations.  Like a series of dominoes, once the initial regulations were promulgated successive regulation followed capturing more sources.  Here is a brief re-cap of EPA’s actions:

  • Endangerment Finding- before regulating greenhouse gases (GHGs) from motor vehicles, the Supreme Court told EPA in Massachusetts v. EPA that the Agency must first determine whether GHG emissions "endanger public health;"
  • Tailpipe Rule–  After making the determination GHG motor vehicle emissions did endanger public health, EPA enacted standards for emissions from motor vehicles under the Tailpipe rule;
  • "Regulated Pollutant"-  Under the CAA’s structure, once a pollutant becomes "regulated" from any source, stationary sources must comply with New Source Review (NSR) requirements.  The CAA establishes a permitting threshold of 100/250 tons per year for any "regulated pollutant."  EPA issued the "timing rule" to clarify that GHGs from factories and other so called "stationary sources" would be covered by NSR once the Tailpipe standards were effective.
  • Tailoring Rule–  EPA determined that automatic application of the 100/250 ton threshold for stationary sources would overwhelm regulatory agencies,  The Agency estimated federal permit applications would jump from 280 per year to 81,000 per year. To soften the blow of inclusion of GHG emissions in NSR permitting, EPA enacted the Tailoring Rule.  Through the rule, EPA temporarily raised the permitting trigger thresholds from the CAA 100/250 tons up to 75,000 tons per year.

Industry and some States filed challenges to each of the rules discussed above.  The Court consolidated those challenges and on June 26th, the D.C. Circuit issued its opinion in Coalition for Responsible Regulation, Inc. v. EPA, No. 09-1322 (D.C. Cir. June 26, 2012).   The Court rejected all of the Coalition’s challenges to each of the EPA rules. 

While an appeal to the Supreme Court is likely, the D.C. Circuit often cited to the Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts v. EPA to support upholding the EPA rules.  Therefore, it is quite possible the Supreme Court will reject a petition to hear an appeal.

Notable Findings of the D.C. Circuit

The importance of Court’s decision cannot be overstated.  The most fundamental finding was the Court upheld every aspect of EPA’s overall regulatory strategy for GHGs.  Here are some other key findings of the Court:

  1. Science v. Policy–  The Court said that EPA’s was directed by the CAA to make its Endangerment finding based purely on science, not policy.  Petitioners wanted EPA to consider other factors, such as: implications on the economy; whether GHG regulation would be effective in mitigating climate change; and whether society would simply adapt to climate change. The Court held EPA was limited to making a determination as to whether GHGs from motor vehicles endanger public health and welfare based  purely upon science.  The Court noted that EPA relied upon reviews of some 18,000 peer reviewed scientific studies in concluding GHG emissions do endanger public health.
  2. Precautionary Principle-  The Petitioners challenged EPA’s Endangerment Finding because it did not specifically determine the level of atmospheric concentration of GHGs that endanger public health (i.e. the safe levels of GHGs).  The Court found the CAA is "precautionary and preventive" in nature.  In other words, EPA need not establish with certainty that climate change is occurring and will cause specific harms.  EPA only needed to find that the scientific evidence show its reasonable to anticipate dangers to public health if GHGs are not controlled.
  3. Those Who Benefit from Reduced Regulation Don’t Have Standing to Challenge the Reduction–  Of all the EPA climate change rule-making, the Tailoring Rule seemed to be the most susceptible to legal challenge.  EPA, in essence, re-wrote a statue through rule-making.  This is typically not a power granted the executive over the legislative branch of government.  Perhaps to avoid confronting the issue, the Court held the petitioners had no standing to challenge the relaxation of the 100/250 ton per year permitting threshold in the Tailoring Rule because petitioners only benefit from the rule.  The Court questioned why Petitioners would want the rule struck down triggering thousands of federal permits.
  4. Court Says Congressional Action Unlikely-  In commentary, the Court said it hat "serious doubts" that Congress will ever enact legislation addressing Climate Change. 

What’s Next?

If the decision stands, it paves the way for EPA to proceed with stricter regulation using its existing CAA authority. EPA could proceed without any Congressional action.

Even though EPA’s Tailoring Rule was upheld, the Agency will be forced to slowly ratchet down over time the permitting threshold.  Unless Congress acts, EPA will be forced to require permits from more and more sources, including smaller commercial buildings.

EPA is also likely to follow with additional GHG regulations.  EPA will likely adopt new GHG emission threshold standards for major source categories.  It is even possible that EPA will implement National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for regulation of GHGs.  Use of the NAAQS could force each of the states to adopt there own GHG regulations on sources.

While EPA marches forward with complex GHG regulations, as things stand, it appears the Court is right in its prediction that Congress will not take action.    Any sort of  cap and trade bill appears dead. With the division between Republicans and Democrats over the issue, it appears Congressional reform of the CAA to better fit GHG regulation is highly unlikely.

On March 28th, U.S. EPA released its highly controversial rulemaking which establishes a carbon dioxide (CO2) emission limit on new coal-fired power plants.  All future coal-fired power plants will have to utilize an unproven technology, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), to meet the emission limits.  CCS involves capturing CO2 and injecting it deep beneath the earth’s surface for permanent storage.

EPA’s proposed rule would exempt from the CO2 emission limit new coal plants that begin construction in the next twelve (12) months.  Some analysts have commented that the fifteen coal-fired power plants currently slated for construction may be the last coal plants constructed in the United States.  This from Businessweek:

“This is the tail end of coal generation build-out,” said Teri Viswanath, the director of commodity markets strategy at BNP Paribas SA (BNP) in New York. “The ones we are getting today — that is going to be the last hurrah for coal-fired generation.”

Certainly that statement would appear to be true unless some of the current plants slated to utilize CCS can demonstrate its a workable technology.  However, with the risk associated with CCS and the costs of new coal power plants, cheap natural gas does seem to be the fuel of choice for new electricity generation in the United States.

Basics of the EPA Rule

EPA’s proposed Carbon Pollution Standard for New Power Plants would apply to all fossil-fuel-fired electric utility generating units (EGUs) that are larger than 25 megawatts.  These new EGUs would have to meet an output-based standard of 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour (lb CO2/MWh gross). 

Studies show that 95% of all newly constructed natural gas combined cycle power plant units meet the proposed standard without any add-on controls.  New coal plants without CCS currently generate around 1,800 lbs CO2/MWh gross.  Based on existing technology, the only way new coal plants could meet the 1,000 lbs standard would be through CCS.

Other key points:

  • Existing plants that begin construction in the next 12 months would be grandfathered (won’t have to meet the standard);
  • Coal plants could be built without CCS if they add it later and the average CO2 emissions over a 30 year period equal the standard.; and
  • The rule does not cover existing coal-fired power plants

Cheap Natural Gas Behind EPA’s Proposed Rule

In releasing the proposed rule, EPA provided a Regulatory Impact Analysis which projected that the rule would be very little negative effect on the cost of electricity or jobs due to low natural gas prices. The chart below shows EPA’s analysis of future natural as prices even accounting for the increased use for electric generation.

 

EPA states in its analysis that market forces have already shifted toward construction of natural gas electricity generating units, in part, due to recent technology used to access deposits of natural gas in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations. 

Under current and foreseeable future market conditions affecting new capacity
additions, gas-fired generating technologies can produce electricity at a lower levelized cost than coal-fired generating technologies, and therefore utilities are expected to rely heavily on combustion turbines and combined cycle plants using natural gas when they do need to expand capacity during the time horizon considered for this analysis. Current and projected natural gas prices are considerably lower than the prices observed over the past decade, largely due to advances in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques that have opened up new shale gas resources and substantially increased the supply of economically recoverable natural gas.

Because the large shale deposits have kept natural gas prices low, EPA finds no real impact from its proposed rule mandating CCS on new coal plants.

One has to ask the question of what happens if the dynamics on natural gas turn out differently.  What if demand increases dramatically or anticipated capacity is much lower?  Will EPA reconsider its carbon standard on new coal plants? 

The rule presents somewhat of a risky proposition by relying on an unproven technology- CCS.  So long as cheap natural gas remains, utilities will have very little incentive to really invest in CCS.

On February 24th, U.S. EPA announced that it would keep in tact the greenhouse gas (GHGs) thresholds for when federal permitting requirements would be triggered.  In announcing that it would not ratchet down the trigger thresholds, EPA said state permitting authorities need more time to develop proper infrastructure as well as expertise in GHG permitting.

Under EPA’s Tailoring Rule, EPA put in place much higher thresholds for when federal permitting would be triggered than appear in the Clean Air Act.  The Act says any source with emissions of a regulated pollutant of 100/250 tons per year (tpy) should obtain a federal permit.  This threshold would apply to GHGs but for the Tailoring Rule.

EPA said that applying 100/250 tpy triggers would result in hundreds of thousands of federal permits.  Therefore, to avoid these "absurd results" EPA relaxed the standard through the Tailoring Rule.  Step 1 of the Tailoring Rule applied to sources that trigger federal permitting anyway.  Step 2 instituted a 100,000 tpy threshold for GHGs emitting from new sources and existing sources and any increase of 75,000 tpy of GHGs from existing sources would trigger permitting.

In Step 3 of the Tailoring Rule EPA was to examine the progress the states made in implementing the new trigger thresholds for GHGs.  EPA said it would consider whether to lower the threshold to 50,000 tpy. 

EPA’s Step 3 Keeps 100,000 TPY and 75,000 TPY Triggers in Place

Under EPA’s proposed Step 3 rule, new facilities with GHGs emissions of 100,000 tons per year (tpy) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) will be required to obtain a federal air permit (known as a "PSD permit").  Existing facilities that emit 100,000 tpy of CO2e and make changes that increase the GHG emission by at least 75,000 tpy CO2e will also trigger a PSD permit. Facilities that must obtain a PSD permit anyway in order to include other regulated pollutants, must also address GHG emission increases of 75,000 tpy or more of CO2e. New and existing sources with GHG emissions above 100,000 tpy CO2e must also obtain operating permits.

The proposal is in the 45 day public comment period after it is published in the federal register.  There will also be a public hearing on March 20, 2012.

EPA’s Walks Tightrope in Administering the Tailoring Rue

In my last post, I discussed the current legal challenge to EPA’s climate change regulations, including the Tailoring Rule.  I pointed out that the challenge to the Tailoring Rule is the most likely to succeed because EPA claims it can re-write a statute (the Clean Air Act) through regulation.

In arguing it has the authority to change the trigger standards in the Clean Air Act through rulemaking, EPA points to the legal theory that applying the statutory thresholds (100/250 tpy) would result in absurd results- thousands of permits that would flood both EPA and the states. 

The tightrope EPA is walking is that, even if it has the legal authority to support the Tailoring Rule, it must still eventually ratchet down the GHG triggers to 100/250 tpy.  In an election year, it was highly unlikely EPA would have moved the thresholds down to 50,000 tpy of CO2e in Step 3 of the Tailoring Rule as EPA previously suggested it might do. 

EPA made the right choice.  However, EPA action comes at the same time when the Tailoring Rule is being challenged in federal court.  The Court may be less likely to buy EPA’s argument that it will get to the 100/250 thresholds eventually when it decided to keep in place the initial thresholds and not demonstrate progress toward reaching the statutory thresholds..