Climate

The Fight Over EPA’s Climate Rule Is Just Getting Started

CREDIT: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

Union members, led by the United Mine Workers of America, protest the EPA's regulations on carbon emissions from coal plants on Thursday, July 31, 2014.

Monday marked the final day for public comments on the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rule to limit carbon emissions from existing and modified power plants, but the EPA, members of Congress, and advocates from both sides say the process is far from over.

“[T]oday does not mark the end of our conversation with the public,” wrote Janet McCabe, the acting assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation in a blog post Monday. “We will continue to talk about the ideas everyone is putting forward as we work through the comments we’ve received. And we will continue to work with stakeholders and states as they are starting to think about their [regulation] compliance plans and how they are going to meet the goals.”

Not including the comments received Monday, the EPA has already taken 1.5 million comments on the rule, which aims to slash power plants’ carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030. Because of the sweeping nature of the proposal, stakeholders had five months to file comments, as opposed to the normal 60 day process that most proposed regulations get.

In the wake of those comments, environmentalists, faith organizations, and industry groups have pledged to intensify their efforts to either push for a stronger rule or get rid of it altogether. In a call with reporters Monday, leaders of the environmentally-minded business group Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) and the ministry Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) said they had obtained support from hundreds of businesses and evangelical leaders from across the country to push for stronger restrictions on carbon pollution than the EPA rule currently has.

“Right now as we make these standards, we’re making a market correction,” said EEN President Rev. Mitchell C. Hescox. “We’ve been paying for the costs that coal companies have imposed on the health of our children and the health of America. It’s time to quit correcting and giving free lunch to these external costs.”

Meanwhile, industry groups have pledged to keep fighting the rule. In a statement released Monday, Arch Coal said the rule could result in the shutdown of more than 20 percent of the country’s coal-fired power, and encouraged the EPA to “withdraw its proposal and move towards a more rational and effective approach.”

The EPA’s final version of the regulation is expected to be released by summer 2015. But problems could arise well before that final version is ready. Leaders of the incoming Republican Congress elected earlier this month have already pledged to strip the EPA of its regulatory power and roll back the rule, deeming it representative of a so-called “War on Coal.” Though a full rollback of the rule is unlikely (a vote to kill the rule would face Obama’s veto pen, and Congress does not have the overwhelming support to override), a Republican Congress could successfully delay the regulations from moving forward for at least the next two years.

In addition, as the rules move closer to being finalized, lawsuits that have targeted the rule are moving through the courts. As of now, though, those lawsuits face a difficult legal hurdle of challenging a rule that hasn’t even been finalized yet, much less implemented.

If those lawsuits are dismissed on that basis — one of which already has been — new ones can be filed once the rules are finalized in June 2015, and it’s very likely that they will. But even if the lawsuits aren’t dismissed, Michael B. Gerrard of New York Law Journal notes that they would likely take a number of years to complete.

Regulating carbon emissions from power plants will be the most significant thing America has ever done to combat climate change. The electricity sector is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions here, and dropping those 25 percent in six years amounts to a reduction of roughly 300 million tons of CO2 each year.