Boxer asks DOJ to force EPA withdrawal of ‘blatantly illegal’ emissions memo

Back in November, the EPA Environmental Appeals Board voted to stop new coal plants cold (see “No new coal plants without “Best Available Control Technology” for CO2“).

But as the NYT reported Friday, “Officials weighing federal applications by utilities to build new coal-fired power plants cannot consider their greenhouse gas output, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency ruled late Thursday.” [Note to self: Keep repeating, “January 20, January 20, January 20.”]

Now E&ENews PM (subs. req’d) reports,

The chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee asked the Justice Department to force U.S. EPA to withdraw a “blatantly illegal memo” by its administrator saying the agency need not consider greenhouse gas emissions when permitting new coal-fired power plants.

And people say I’m a (technology) optimist! Boxer’s letter is here. The article continues:

California Democrat Barbara Boxer is asking Attorney General Michael Mukasey to ensure that EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson withdraws the memo to prevent a waste of taxpayer money defending the illegal decision and to make clear that the Bush administration should not spend its last month issuing “midnight rules.”

“This illegal document issued by Stephen Johnson makes it clear that he has become a renegade administrator,” Boxer said in a statement. “Mr. Johnson’s latest action is intended to make the job of combating global warming more difficult and will add to the millions of taxpayer dollars he has wasted in defending his illegal decisions.”

At issue is a document written last week by Johnson in response to an EPA Environmental Appeals Board decision last month ordering the agency to re-examine its decision to grant a Clean Air Act permit to a new coal plant in Uintah County, Utah. The board said that the permit failed to explain why there were no limits on greenhouse gas emissions (Greenwire, Dec. 19).

But Johnson’s memo trumped the board’s decision. Even though EPA has rules requiring electric utilities to monitor and report their greenhouse gas emissions to the federal government, he wrote, those measures don’t require restrictions on actual emissions.

Boxer urged Mukasey to take “swift and decisive action” to ensure that Johnson withdraws the document. “The attorney general has an obligation to intervene when the actions of the administration are so clearly outside the law,” she said. She asked that the attorney general contact her immediately regarding his next steps on the matter.

EPA spokesman Jonathan Shradar defended Johnson. “Administrator Johnson’s memo is supported by 30 years of agency actions and provides clarity and consistency to the permitting process,” he said in an e-mail.

Marc Morano, a spokesman for Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, also supported the Johnson memo. “It represents sound policy judgment, is consistent with past agency practice, and not precluded by the Clean Air Act,” he said in a statement. “It also further demonstrates why the architecture of the current act was never designed to handle carbon dioxide regulation.”

Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said the department would review the letter and respond appropriately.

“Appropriately”? This is the Department that signed off on torture. What the heck is a few coal plants to them? Still, can’t blame Boxer for trying, I suppose.

16 Responses to Boxer asks DOJ to force EPA withdrawal of ‘blatantly illegal’ emissions memo

  1. steve h says:

    Tax the fuel, not the emissions. Its easy, its simple, and it bypasses the years and years of work that it will take to get the EPA able to effectively administer cap and trade, or figure out what measures to use for CO2 emissions. Yes, it transfers the cost onto the consumer, as it should, for coal. It takes profits away from oil companies, as gasoline prices are generally moderated at similar levels irregardless of state gas taxes. Taxing the fuel will be easiest for industry, and easiest for the gov’t.

    By the way, this tax would be about $0.50 per gallon gasoline, which pound for pound of CO2 results in $143 per ton coal, roughly, resulting in an increase in the price of coal by about 110% to 1000% (central appaplachian to powder river basin). (about 4 cents per kwh for cen app coal), more in line with natural gas and fuel oil.

  2. jcwinnie says:

    Ah, Washington Theater. Now that Wax-guy got the chair he wanted, we don’t hear anything about war profiteering. I wonder what Sen.Boxer is angling to get?

  3. kihoon says:

    steve h, that’s a very interesting proposition, i’ve actually never thought about approaching the problem from that angle
    i was wondering, however, with the economy slumping and all, wouldn’t this essentially FORCE people out of using their cars, just due to economic inability?
    and i’m not sure how much this would impact the situation because those most heavily exacerbating the CO2 levels in the air are those who have the luxury to drive and such even at current gas rates. and higher prices probably won’t motivate too much of the upper population…perhaps i’m assuming that not enough of the middle-income echelon significantly contribute to emissions

  4. steve h says:

    With the gas prices as low as they are now, it would impact people, yes, but not to the degree that it would if the tax were passed when gas was $3.50 a gallon. However, gasoline is a strange beast, in economic terms, because its advertised with the tax included, making it such that the going from a high tax state to a low tax state, the price differences are usually less than the tax differences. If we directly tax the oil companies, the price would just be passed on to the consumer anyways, and they would still make the same amount of money. If you tax the consumer at the pump, the oil companies make less money. In other words, its a more efficient system for taxation. But yes, people that can afford to pollute will continue to pollute. That’s why we also have to have market limits on the sale of high-polluting commodities, like SUVs and 5000 sqft homes. If we cap the number of high-polluting commodities, then the price of those would be driven way up. The feds could cap SUV production, and locals could cap new home constructions (ideally through a sort of regional planning process that doesn’t allow for the rich to escape higher city taxes and rules by building in rural areas.)

  5. Matt says:

    Obama cannot become president soon enough.

  6. suzie q says:

    Lets just formally declare a communist society and tell people what they can and cannot do. Are you seriously advocating that we limit the square footage of someone’s home, or limit the number of SUVs sold?

    [JR: No. This isn’t the blog for absurdist straw men arguments. On the other hand, are you seriously advocating doing nothing to sharply reverse emissions trends, thereby condemning our children and the next 50 generations to a ruined planet?]

  7. David B. Benson says:

    steve h — Actually, less than $15 per tonne of CO2 is enough to permanently remove it. Well, some scoflaws won’t end up paying such a ‘excess carbon dioxide removal fee’, so say $20 per tonne for those who have no choice but to pay it. Then in the developed countries add another $15 per tonne to start removing some of the current excess; that’s now $35 per tonne of CO2.

    What’s that for Central Appalachiam coal costs at the mine head; also for gasoline?

    [JR: Not sure where you got those numbers, but European prices hit $40 a tonne of CO2 this year, and companies in four European countries were still planning to build new coal plants.]

  8. steve h says:

    Suzie Q,

    No, in a communist country, you would live in drab flat with concrete walls. We have to draw a line at some point between polluting to fulfill need and polluting to satisfy wants. I don’t think its right to tell people they can’t live in a 5000 sq ft home, but if they want to they have to pay out the wazoo for it. Again, if you want to purchase a nice new Expedition, go ahead, but you’ll have to pay much more for it. Its a system of assigning costs to undesirable behaviors in a way that makes it easier on those just trying to fulfill needs (driving to work in a beat-up 1993 Corolla) versus those trying to fulfill wants.


    I’m not too concerned about the numbers themselves at this point, but its just a matter of assigning a cost to the pollution as soon as possible, and a fuel tax would do that. I don’t think we will ever stop coal plants from producing energy with a tax, but the goal now is to make it more difficult for them to turn a profit without accounting for their environmental impact. In this way we can hope to make investment in new coal plants more risky than investing in alternatives. You can go to the wikipedia entry for carbon tax for detail examination of numbers, but I don’t want to get too involved with that. I’m more of a perspective person on matters I’m not an expert in.

  9. David B. Benson says:

    Joe Romm — I’ve tryed to point you to Olaf Schuiling’s proposal before, but maybe I’ll have to send an e-mail. Anyway, the ideas indicated in

    can, both Schuiling and I agree, be accomplished for $15 (or less) per tonne of CO2 permanently removed.

    [JR: Awesome!]

  10. John Hollenberg says:

    Other interesting articles about sequestering CO2 by using the effluent from coal burning power plants to make cement:

  11. John Hollenberg: Where are you going to use concrete with that much URANIUM, ARSENIC, LEAD, MERCURY, Antimony, Cobalt, Nickel, Copper, Selenium, Barium, Fluorine, Silver, Beryllium, Iron, Sulfur, Boron, Titanium, Cadmium, Magnesium, Calcium, Manganese, Vanadium, Chlorine, Aluminum, Chromium, Molybdenum and Zinc in it? Coal contains all of those elements and coal ash has those elements concentrated by the removal of carbon. Woops! I forgot Thorium. Uranium and thorium decay products are already the source of the radon in houses. [Uranium and thorium are present in the core of the earth and in the rocks in the ground.] Uranium is a chemical poison.

  12. Shelly says:

    steve h — are you kidding? Transfer the cost to the consumer? The consumer is broke.
    The consumer is losing their homes and getting their utilities shut off. The consumer has no more money for your plan.

    The best idea I have heard so far is a cap and dividend program. Consumers are hurting very badly right now, are losing their homes, and charging them for the fuels that are on the market is simply not fair. Consumers should be conserving as much as they can, but they should not be charged extra for using what is on the market. Consumers didn’t determine the types of fuel that are available to us. Cap and dividend gives money back to the consumers. You can see it explained here by Peter Barnes. Cap and dividend is also the plan encouraged by James Hansen of NASA. His plan is a little different but you can find it on his website under the recent paper about telling the truth to Obama. Consumers cannot be held primarily financial responsible for the mistakes of big oil and big coal and Congress. They just buy what’s available. If solar and wind were affordable right now that is what people would be buying and using. If electric cars were on the market they would be flying out the dealer’s floors. I want Exxon and Shell to pay for what they have done, not my neighbors.

  13. Shelly says:

    Forgot the link — here is the Peter Barnes video explaining his carbon reduction plan.

  14. Joe Koncelik says:

    While I certainly understand the desire to limit greenhouse gases, I wonder whether many on the internet truly understand the implications of controlling GHGs under the Clean Air Act. The Act, as it is currently written, was simply not designed to control such a ubiquitous pollutant. While controls on coal plants may sound like a good idea, you can’t pick and choose which portions of the Clean Air Act will apply to GHGs. Do you really want federal air permits for every new commercial store and large building? Isn’t it better to let Congress design a system that better suits the nature of CO2 and the other GHGs?