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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set off yesterday on an 11-city “listening tour” to get public comments on its plan to craft carbon emission limits for the nation’s existing power plants. First stop: Atlanta, GA.
The upcoming rules are the centerpiece of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, and represent the culmination of a long process in which the Supreme Court determined the agency must regulate carbon emissions if it found them to be a threat to public health. Obama set a deadline of June 2014 for the EPA to release the proposed rules, to be finalized in June 2015.
Critics of the regulations are also mobilizing. The House GOP will hold a hearing next Tuesday to highlight the possible impacts of the regulations on communities that rely heavily on coal for power.
The same day, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity will hold a rally in D.C. protesting the rules — which is ironic, given that advances in clean coal technology are one of the points in the EPA’s case for why the regulations will be workable.
The listening tour began yesterday, October 23, in Atlanta, Georgia and New York City. The next stops are Boston, Massachusetts and Lenexa, Kansas on November 4. From there, the schedule last through November 8, and will take the EPA through other cities including Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.
There are a number of options and questions the EPA needs to explore.
The agency could take a “rate-based” approach, which sets a limit of tons of carbon that can be released per megawatt hour of electricity generated. That rate limit could be applied to individual plants, which is what the EPA did with its already-released rules for new power plants. Or the rate limit could be applied to a state as a whole, as the Natural Resources Defense Council suggested in its proposal, with individual facilities in a state allowed a higher or lower emission rates as long as it all averages out to the state-level target. Each individual plant tends to have various needs, abilities, and limitations, so that second approach would provide greater flexibility in meeting the requirements.
Alternatively, the EPA could take a “mass-based” approach, and give the states a hard limit on the amount of carbon dioxide they can emit. This could theoretically come in the form of a cap-and-trade system, in which the overall emissions limit is divvied up into little allowances and then bought and sold amongst plants themselves. That creates a market incentive for cutting emissions, because plants want avoid the costs of buying more allowances to cover more emissions, and because they want the profits from selling allowances they don’t need. The cap-and-trade approach is what the agency took when reducing acid rain. But that was made possible by explicit legislation from Congress in 1990, and an equivalent bill for carbon emissions failed to pass in 2009.
That leaves the EPA with the task of building the regulations off older Clean Air Act language. Depending on how far it goes in adapting those statutes, industry could sue it, and the matter would have to be decided in court. So one of the EPA’s likely goals for the listing tour is to get a sense of its options vis-a-vis the other interests involved.
“It might be a little difficult, although I personally think there are some high-level principles, whether it’s flexibility, regional differences, credit for early action, stuff like that where we might be able to reach a consensus,” Philip Jones, president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, told E&E News.
Different states do have differing needs and circumstances. Some are much more reliant on coal-fired electricity than others. At the same time, states like California or the northeastern members of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative have already instituted their own cap-and-trade programs, and would like to see those integrated into the EPA’s plans.