Why You Should Care That Courts Overturn EPA’s Carbon Pollution Standard

The 2012 elections ensure that President Obama’s “war on coal” will continue for at least two more years. The administration’s preferred M.O. has been for the EPA to “enact” anti-coal policies that Congress would reject if such measures were introduced as legislation and put to a vote. Had Gov. Romney won the presidential race and the GOP gained control of the Senate, affordable energy advocates could now go on offense and pursue a legislative strategy to roll back various EPA global warming regulations, air pollution regulations, and restrictions on mountaintop mining. But Romney lost and Democrats gained two Senate seats.

Consequently, defenders of free-market energy are stuck playing defense and their main weapon now is litigation. This is a hard slog because courts usually defer to agency interpretations of the statutes they administer. But sometimes petitioners win. In August, the U.S. Court of Appeals struck down the EPA’s Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), a regulation chiefly targeting coal-fired power plants. The Court found that the CSAPR exceeded the agency’s statutory authority. Similarly, in March, the Court ruled that the EPA exceeded its authority when it revoked a Clean Water Act permit for Arch Coal’s Spruce Mine No. 1 in Logan Country, West Virginia.

A key litigation target in 2013 is EPA’s proposal to establish greenhouse gas (GHG) “new source performance standards” (NSPS) for power plants. This so-called carbon pollution standard is not based on policy-neutral health or scientific criteria. Rather, the EPA contrived the standard so that commercially-viable coal plants cannot meet it. The rule effectively bans investment in new coal generation.

We Can Win This One

Prospects for overturning the rule are good for three main reasons.

(1) Banning new coal electric generation is a policy Congress has not authorized and would reject if proposed in legislation and put to a vote. Once again the EPA is acting beyond its authority.

The proposed “carbon pollution” standard requires new fossil-fuel electric generating units (EGUs) to emit no more than 1,000 lbs of carbon dioxide (CO2) per megawatt hour (MWh). About 95% of all natural gas combined cycle power plants already meet the standard, according to the EPA. No existing coal power plants come close; even the most efficient, on average, emit 1,800 lbs CO2/MWh.

A coal power plant equipped with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology could meet the standard, but the levelized cost of new coal plants already exceeds that of new natural gas combined cycle plants, and “today’s CCS technologies would add around 80% to the cost of electricity for a new pulverized coal (PC) plant, and around 35% to the cost of electricity for a new advanced gasification-based (IGCC) plant,” the EPA acknowledges.

In short, the EPA has proposed a standard no economical coal plant can meet. Not surprising given President Obama’s longstanding ambition to “bankrupt” anyone who builds a new coal power plant and his vow to find other ways of “skinning the cat” after the 2010 election-day “slaughter” of 29 cap-and-trade Democrats. But the big picture is hard to miss: Congress never signed off on this policy.

The only time Congress even considered imposing GHG performance standards on power plants was during the debate on the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill. Section 216 of Waxman-Markey would have established NSPS requiring new coal power plants to reduce CO2 emissions by 50% during 2009-2020 and by 65% after 2020 – roughly what the EPA is now proposing. Although Waxman-Markey narrowly passed in the House, it became so unpopular as “cap-and-tax” that Senate leaders pulled the plug on companion legislation.

Team Obama is attempting to accomplish through the regulatory backdoor what it could not achieve through the legislative front door. The “carbon pollution” rule is an affront to the separation of powers.

(2) The “carbon pollution” standard is regulation by misdirection – an underhanded ‘bait-and-fuel-switch.’

In Massachusetts v. EPA (April 2007), the Supreme Court held that GHGs are “air pollutants” for regulatory purposes. This spawned years of speculation about whether the EPA would define “best available control technology” (BACT) standards for “major” GHG emitters so stringently that utilities could not obtain pre-construction permits unless they built natural gas power plants instead of new coal power plants.

In March 2011, the EPA published a guidance document assuring stakeholders that BACT for CO2 would not require a permit applicant “to switch to a primary fuel type” different from the fuel type the applicant planned to use for its primary combustion process. The agency specifically disavowed plans to “redefine the source [category]” such that coal boilers are held to the same standard as gas turbines.

The EPA reiterated this assurance in a Q&A document accompanying the guidance. One question asks: “Does this guidance say that fuel switching (coal to natural gas) should be selected as BACT for a power plant?” The EPA gives a one-word response: “No.”

This bears directly on the legal propriety of the “carbon pollution” standard. In general, NSPS are less stringent than BACT. NSPS provide the “floor” or minimum emission control standard for determining an emitter’s BACT requirements. BACT is intended to push individual sources to make deeper emission cuts than the category-wide NSPS requires.

Yet despite the EPA’s assurance that BACT, although tougher than NSPS, would not require fuel switching or redefine coal power plants into the same source category as natural gas power plants, the “carbon pollution” rule does exactly that.

In April 2011, the House passed H.R. 910, the Energy Tax Prevention Act, sponsored by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), by a vote of 255-172. H.R. 910 would overturn all of the EPA’s GHG regulations except for those the auto and trucking industries had already made investments to comply with. Sen. James Inhofe’s companion bill (S. 482) failed by one vote. In June 2010, Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) Congressional Review Act resolution to strip the agency of its Mass v. EPA-awarded power to regulate GHGs failed by four votes. One or both of those measures might have passed had the EPA come clean about its agenda and stated in 2009 it would eventually propose GHG performance standards no affordable coal power plant can meet.

(3) The “carbon pollution” standard is weirdly contorted, flouting basic standards of reasonableness and candor.

Under the Clean Air Act, an emission performance standard is supposed to reflect “the degree of emission limitation achievable through the application of best system of emission reduction” that has been “adequately demonstrated.” The EPA picked 1,000 lbs CO2/MWh as the NSPS for new fossil-fuel EGUs because that is the “degree of emission limitation achievable through natural gas combined cycle generation.”

But natural gas combined cycle is not a system of emission reduction. It is a type of power plant. The EPA is saying with a straight face that natural gas combined cycle is an emission reduction system that has been adequately demonstrated for coal power plants. By that ‘logic,’ zero-carbon nuclear-, hydro-, wind-, or solar-electric generation is an emission reduction system that has been adequately demonstrated for natural gas combined cycle.

A coal power plant could meet the standard by installing CCS, but, as the EPA acknowledges, CCS is too costly to qualify as “adequately demonstrated.” The only practical way for utilities to comply is to build new gas turbines instead of new coal boilers. This is the first time the EPA has defined a performance standard such that one type of facility can comply only by being something other than what it is.

The EPA sets performance standards for specific categories of industrial sources. A coal boiler is different from a gas turbine, and up to now the agency reasonably regulated them as different source categories, under different parts of the Code of Federal Regulations – Subpart Da for coal boilers, Subpart KKKK for gas turbines. The EPA now proposes to regulate coal boilers and gas turbines as a single source category — “fossil-fuel EGUs” — under a new subpart numbered TTTT. But only for CO2! Coal boilers and gas turbines will continue to be regulated as separate source categories for criteria and toxic pollutants under Subparts Da and KKKK.

Why hold coal boilers and gas turbines to different standards for those pollutants? The EPA’s answer: “This is because although coal-fired EGUs have an array of control options for criteria and toxic air pollutants to choose from, those controls generally do not reduce their criteria and air toxic emissions to the level of conventional emissions from natural gas-fired EGUs.”

The same reasoning argues even more strongly against imposing a single GHG standard on coal boilers and natural gas turbines. Coal boilers do not have an “array of control options” for CO2 emissions, and have no “adequately demonstrated” option for reducing CO2 emissions to the level of gas-fired EGUs. Subpart TTTT is an administrative contortion concocted to kill the future of coal generation.

Why Care Even If You Don’t Mine or Combust Coal for a Living

At this point you may be wondering why anyone outside the coal industry should care about this cockamamie rule. There are several reasons.

First and most obviously, banning new coal generation could increase electric rates and make prices more volatile. For generations, coal has supplied half or more of U.S. electricity, and still provides the single largest share. The “carbon pollution” standard is risky because coal’s chief competitor, natural gas, has a history of price volatility and a future clouded by the environmental movement’s hostility to hydraulic fracturing, the technology transforming gas from a costly shrinking resource to an affordable expanding resource.

The “carbon pollution” standard itself could put the kibosh on new gas-fired generation if the EPA concludes, as MIT researchers contend, that fugitive methane emissions from hydraulic fracturing make gas as carbon-intensive as coal.

The EPA is also developing GHG performance standards for refineries. “Unconventional” oil production from shale and oil sands is booming in North America, creating thousands of jobs, generating billions of dollars in tax revenues, and reducing U.S. dependence on OPEC oil. But unconventional oil production is energy-intensive and therefore carbon-intensive. It is unknown whether or how the forthcoming GHG standard for refineries will address the carbon intensity of unconventional oil. What we do know is that the environmental groups who litigated the EPA into proposing these standards are arch foes of unconventional oil.

In any event, the “carbon pollution” standard for power plants is just the start of a regulatory trajectory, not its end point. The EPA’s settlement agreement with environmental groups and state attorneys general obligates the agency to extend the standard to “modified” coal power plants and establish emission “guidelines” for non-modified units.

Moreover, the standard sets a precedent for promulgating NSPS for other GHG source categories – including natural gas. As indicated above, if gas can set the standard for coal, then wind and solar can set the standard for gas, and the refinery standard could undermine the profitability of unconventional oil. Although initially directed against new coal, the standard puts all fossil-energy production in an ever-tightening regulatory noose.

Pandora’s NAAQS

Taking a longer view, the “carbon pollution” rule moves the U.S. economy one step closer to the ultimate environmental policy disaster: national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for GHGs.

In December 2009, the EPA issued a rule under Section 202 of the Clean Air Act declaring that GHG emissions from new motor vehicles endanger public health and welfare. The endangerment rule was both prerequisite and trigger for the agency’s adoption, in January 2011, of first-ever GHG motor vehicle standards. The agency now claims that it need not issue a new and separate endangerment finding under Section 211 to adopt first-ever GHG performance standards for power plants, because subsequent science confirms and strengthens its Section 202 finding.

An implication of this argument is that the EPA need not make a new endangerment finding to promulgate NAAQS for GHGs under Section 108, because the Section 202 finding would suffice for that as well.

Section 108 of the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to initiate a NAAQS rulemaking for “air pollution” from “numerous or diverse mobile or stationary sources” if such pollution “may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health and welfare.” Carbon dioxide obviously comes from numerous and diverse mobile and stationary sources, and the EPA has already determined that the associated “air pollution” – the “elevated concentrations” of GHGs in the atmosphere – endangers public health and welfare. Logically, the EPA must establish NAAQS for GHGs set below current atmospheric concentrations.

Eco-litigants have already put this ball in play. 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 concentrations) and for other GHGs at pre-industrial levels.

The potential for mischief is hard to exaggerate. Not even a worldwide depression that permanently lowers global economic output and emissions to, say, 1970 levels, would stop CO2 concentrations from rising over the remainder of the century. Yet the Clean Air Act requires States to adopt implementation plans adequate to attain primary (health-based) NAAQS within five or at most 10 years. A CO2 NAAQS set at 350 parts per million would require a level of economic sacrifice vastly exceeding anything contemplated by the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill or the Copenhagen climate treaty, which aimed to stabilize CO2-equivalent emissions at 450 parts per million by 2050.

The EPA has yet to decide on the CBD-350.Org petition. Perhaps this is another case of punting unpopular regulatory decisions until Obama’s second term. The one instance where the administration addressed the issue is not reassuring. In a brief submitted to the Supreme Court in American Electric Power v. Connecticut, the Obama Justice Department described Section 108 as one of the provisions making the Clean Air Act a “comprehensive regulatory framework” for climate change policy.

Ultimately, only the people’s representatives can protect coal generation, hydraulic fracturing, and unconventional oil from hostile regulation. But nixing the “carbon pollution” standard would be a big setback to both the EPA and the eco-litigation fraternity, and would help safeguard America’s energy options until a future Congress reins in the agency.