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Experts Agree: We Can Preserve Electric Reliability While Protecting Public Health Under the Clean Power Plan

power-poles-503935_1920Last June, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed the first ever national carbon pollution standards for existing power plants. Fossil fuel-fired power plants account for almost 40% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, making them the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the nation and one of the single largest categories of greenhouse gas sources in the world.

Under the Clean Power Plan, these emissions will decline to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 – accompanied by a significant decline in other harmful pollutants from the power sector, such as sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen. The power sector is already halfway to this target, already 15% below 2005 levels.

The EPA has carefully designed the Clean Power Plan to provide extensive flexibility so that states and power companies can continue to deliver a steady flow of electricity while deploying cost-effective measures to reduce carbon pollution over the next fifteen years.

The Clean Power Plan:

  • Allows states and power companies to determine the optimal timing of emission reductions over a ten year-long averaging period starting in 2020;
  • Allows states to decide how to most cost-effectively reduce carbon pollution, including through market-based programs and clean energy policies that have been successfully used around the country; and
  • Allows states to cooperate with one another in complying with the long-term reduction goals.

In addition, the Clean Power Plan preserves the ability of grid operators to deploy long-standing tools and processes that have been successfully used in the past to keep the electric grid functioning reliability during periods of significant change. EDF has released a white paper identifying these well-established tools and practices, and describing how they will continue to ensure a reliable grid under the Clean Power Plan.

Grid operators are well-equipped to ensure reliability as we transition to a cleaner and more efficient power sector, just as they have under all previous Clean Air Act regulations. EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan is eminently achievable, reliable, and cost-effective – and integral to our climate security, human health and prosperity.

Ample tools and practices exist to ensure a clean and reliable grid

Grid operators have long-standing tools and practices available to ensure that our nation’s grid continues to provide power reliably. These include well-established planning principles that have motivated large amounts of new generation year in, year out. Since 2000, roughly 30 gigawatts of new generation have been added per year, largely consisting of low or zero-emitting resources such as wind turbines and natural gas combined cycle power plants. Over the next two years, the solar industry alone expects to add another 20 gigawatts of power. In addition, reliability is ensured through tools and practices including:

  • Transmission Upgrades: Because upgraded transmission infrastructure can help move generation more easily, transmission upgrades can enhance reliability without needing to add new generation.
  • Long-term forecasting: Grid planners and reliability regulators forecast the needs of the electric grid years in advance. By determining how much transmission and generation will be needed, any long-term reliability issue can be identified and resolved quickly and effectively.
  • Reliability Must-Run (“RMR”) Contracts: Short term contracts that, in the case of sudden and unexpected retirements or plant losses, require a unit to be kept operational until reliability can be ensured through the use of longer term tools.
  • Operating Procedures: Manuals and standard practices exist to ensure that, in the case of particular reliability scenarios, grid operators know the best way to respond.

These tools are already in use throughout the country, and have proven extremely effective in maintaining reliability over the last few decades – even as the power sector has begun a rapid transition towards cleaner sources of electricity, and has implemented important public health protections under the Clean Air Act. In the Mid-Atlantic region, for example, roughly 12,500 MW of coal-fired power plant capacity retired from 2010 to 2014 due to economic reasons. Employing these well-established tools and practices, the region saw a large quantity of new resources added, without reducing reliability.

Clean energy resources and reliability

In complying with the Clean Power Plan, states and power companies will be able to draw on reliable, low-cost clean energy resources like demand response, renewable energy, and energy efficiency. Energy efficiency is almost three times cheaper than the next cheapest alternative and primed for enormous growth. Resources like demand response help prevent blackouts, such as in the case of the 2013 polar vortex. And renewable energy continues to grow, with states such as Maine, California, and Iowa already using it to meet close to one quarter of their entire demand.

No reliability crisis has resulted from implementing clean air standards

Claims that we can’t have clean air and a reliable power grid are as old as the Clean Air Act itself — and have never proven accurate. As far back as the 1970s, a power company issued an ad claiming the lights would go out as a result of the Clean Air Act. In recent years, some power companies that oppose public health protections under the Clean Air Act have made similar claims that the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and Cross-State Air Pollution Rule will harm electric reliability.

These assertions have consistently been discredited: in the 45-year history of the Clean Air Act, no emission standard has ever caused the lights to go out. This is a testament both to the rigorous process and analyses EPA relies on to develop Clean Air Act standards, as well as the effective tools that grid operators and other authorities use to manage reliability on a short-term and long-term basis.

Numerous states, power companies, and reliability experts have indicated that the Clean Power Plan is achievable

A diverse collection of energy experts and power company officials have recently made comments noting the feasibility of achieving the emission reduction goals of the Clean Power Plan; describing their experience in reducing carbon emissions in a cost-effective way as well as explaining approaches to ensure reliability is maintained while making progress to reduce carbon emissions.

Written Testimony of Kathleen Barrón, Senior Vice President, Exelon Corporation, Before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission: Technical Conference on EPA’s Clean Power Plan (Feb. 19, 2015):

Exelon strongly supports EPA’s goal of reducing carbon emissions from the electric power sector. As EPA notes in the Clean Power Plan, the current level of carbon emissions is environmentally unsustainable, and action must be taken now in order to prevent significant, irreversible environmental damage and major economic loss. By providing regulatory certainty, well-designed carbon reduction rules will be a driving force to modernize our aging electric system so that our customers will continue to have a safe and reliable electric system to support our Nation’s economic growth.”

Written Testimony of Susan F. Tierney, Ph.D, Analysis Group, Before the House Comm. on Energy and Commerce: Hearing to Examine EPA’s Proposed 111(d) Rule for Existing Power Plants (Apr. 14, 2015):

The Clean Power Plan provides states a wide range of compliance options and operational discretion that can prevent reliability issues while also reducing carbon pollution and compliance costs. Experience has shown that such approaches allow for seamless, reliable implementation of emissions-reduction targets. By contrast, many stakeholders’ concerns about the Clean Power Plan presume inflexible implementation, are based on worst-case scenarios, and assume that policy makers, regulators, and market participants will stand on the sidelines until it is too late to act. There is no historical basis for these assumptions.”

Joshua Epel, Chairman, Colorado Public Utilities Commission, Before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission: Western Regional Technical Conference on EPA’s Clean Power Plan (Feb. 25, 2015).

In Colorado we have charted our own course to decarbonize our electric system. . . . Now when the Clean Power Plan is finalized I believe that Colorado as a state will come up with an approach which will meet the revised goals . . . . I’m very pleased with some of the steps we have taken with just approved unprecedented amounts of utility scale solar . . . . We are doing a lot with wind, we are doing a lot with innovat[ive] approaches actually passed by the legislature. . . . So we think there’s a lot of innovative tools for Colorado to use."

Flexibility in the Clean Power Plan

EPA’s Clean Power Plan wholly preserves the ability of grid operators, power companies, and other institutions to deploy the well-established tools and practices that ensure the reliable operation of the power grid.

The Plan provides state-wide goals for emission reductions, while affording states ample flexibility in how those goals must be met. States are not limited to using any particular pathway to meet the Plan, and can deploy a variety of existing and new policies to meet the state-wide greenhouse gas reduction goals, including flexible market-based tools. This already existing flexibility allows grid operators the freedom to use long-standing and tested actions to ensure reliability.

Although the Clean Power Plan represents an important step forward for our country, it builds on a nation-wide trend toward a cleaner and more efficient power sector that is already under way. As noted above, carbon emissions from the power sector are already 15% lower than in 2005 – reflecting a sharp decline in coal-fired power generation, as well as a significant increase in natural gas generation and renewables and rising investment in energy efficiency.

Since 2005, many fossil fuel-fired power plants have also installed modern pollution controls in response to state and federal clean air standards adopted to protect public health from harmful particulates, ozone-forming pollution, and toxic air pollutants such as mercury and arsenic.

The robust system of reliability safeguards described above has responded deftly to these developments, ensuring a consistent and reliable supply of affordable power while helping reduce harmful air pollution. There is every reason to believe that the Clean Power Plan, with its extended implementation timeframe and numerous compliance flexibilities, will similarly achieve important reductions in air pollution without compromising electric reliability.

For more information please read our white paper: Protective Carbon Pollution Standards and Electric Reliability

Also posted in Clean Air Act, Clean Power Plan, Energy, Greenhouse Gas Emissions| 1 Response

Clean Power Plan Litigation: An End Run around the Clean Air Act and the Democratic Process

This Thursday, April 16, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit will hear oral argument in three related cases — West Virginia v. EPA (No. 14-1146) and In re Murray Energy Corporation (No. 14-1112, 14-1151)involving challenges to EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan, which will establish the nation’s first limits on carbon pollution from existing fossil fuel-fired power plants.

EDF is a party to the cases, and will be in court on Thursday.

These cases have attracted media attention in large part because these are the first legal challenges to a high-profile national rulemaking that will establish critical public health protections for the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gases.

But these cases are also drawing notice because they involve highly unorthodox attempts to stop an ongoing rulemaking process. EPA is still considering more than four million public comments received between June and December 2014 on its proposed standards, and the Agency is not expected to issue a final rule until this summer.

From a legal perspective, the petitioners’ case is fatally flawed on both procedural and substantive grounds.

Turning first to the procedural issues:

The timing of these legal challenges blatantly disregards the most basic principles of federal administrative law.

Although the three petitions before the D.C. Circuit have different procedural postures, all of them seek to block or overturn EPA’s proposed carbon pollution standards. But under federal administrative law, standards developed by agencies such as EPA must go through a transparent and participatory process in which proposed standards are published, the public has an opportunity to comment on those standards, and agencies then issue final standards that respond to those comments. Both the Clean Air Act and the Administrative Procedure Act clearly provide that legal challenges can only be filed after this process is complete, and the agency has taken final action.

This long-standing rule against premature legal challenges serves a number of compelling purposes:

  • It prevents parties from doing an “end run” around the public comment process.
  • It gives administrative agencies the opportunity to ensure that final rules are firmly grounded in law and fact.
  • It ensures that reviewing courts have before them the agency’s full and definitive decisions and analyses.
  • It protects courts and agencies from wasting valuable time litigating proposals that may change as a result of public comments.

Those purposes clearly apply here. EPA is months away from taking final action on the Clean Power Plan — and is still weighing millions of public comments filed on almost every aspect of the proposed rule, including the same legal issues raised by the D.C. Circuit petitioners (who have simultaneously filed voluminous comments with EPA making the very arguments they are making in court).

The petitioners attempt to short-circuit this careful, deliberative rulemaking process is radical and would – if successful – open the door to endless litigation over agency proposals. Petitioners have pointed to no case in which the D.C. Circuit or any other federal court has ever entertained such an anticipatory challenge to an administrative rulemaking. Indeed, in the last two years, the federal courts have twice dismissed similar lawsuits that were filed against EPA’s proposed carbon pollution standards for new power plants — Las Brisas Energy Center LLC v. EPA, 12-1248 (D.C. Cir. Dec. 13, 2012) and Nebraska v. EPA, No. 4:14-CV-3006 (D. Neb. Oct. 6, 2014). On procedural grounds alone, the petitioners’ case should similarly be dismissed.

The petitioners’ substantive claim — that EPA is prohibited from regulating carbon dioxide from the power sector under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act — is equally unfounded.

Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act requires EPA to regulate harmful pollution from existing sources, where that pollution is not regulated under other provisions of the Clean Air Act relating to national ambient air quality standards (sections 108-110) and hazardous air pollutants (section 112). For more than forty years, section 111(d) has been understood to serve a vital gap-filling role in the Clean Air Act – ensuring the protection of human health and welfare from harmful air pollution that is not addressed under other key Clean Air Act programs.

Because carbon dioxide from the power sector is not regulated under section 108 or 112, EPA has logically proposed that it must be regulated under section 111(d). This conclusion not only follows from a long-standing interpretation of section 111(d), it also is consistent with the Supreme Court’s 2011 decision in American Electric Power v. Connecticut – which stated that section 111(d) “speaks directly” to the problem of carbon pollution from existing power plants, and held that EPA’s authority to regulate carbon pollution under section 111(d) displaces federal common law.

Indeed, attorneys for some of the nation’s largest power companies specifically supported this interpretation at oral argument before the Supreme Court, and urged the “comprehensive” coverage of the Clean Air Act, including section 111(d)’s applicability to carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants, as a reason why federal courts should not recognize a non-statutory remedy for power plant carbon pollution under the federal common law.

The petitioners nonetheless contend that EPA is categorically forbidden from regulating carbon dioxide from the power sector under section 111(d) because EPA has already issued standards for different pollutants (mercury, other toxic metals, and acid gases) from the power sector under a different section of the Clean Air Act.

As EPA explained in its brief in West Virginia, this theory amounts to a “pick your poison” approach to the Clean Air Act – arbitrarily limiting EPA to regulating either pollutants like mercury under section 112 or pollutants like carbon dioxide under section 111(d) for any given source, but not both.

Such a result would be completely out of step with the Clean Air Act, which consistently recognizes that different air pollutants pose different risks to the public, so that controlling one pollutant from a source does not eliminate the need to control other pollutants. The petitioners’ theory would radically alter the structure of the Clean Air Act, transforming what is now a seamless regulatory framework into one with potential gaping loopholes.

Neither the text nor the structure and history of the Clean Air Act support these claims. The petitioners’ theory rests entirely on a strained interpretation of a technical amendment to section 111(d) that the House of Representatives passed as part of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments. But as EPA and other parties describe in more detail in their briefs to the DC Circuit, the text of the House amendment has multiple interpretations – and is most reasonably read to support the traditional “gap-filling” role of section 111(d) and EPA’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide from the power sector.

Moreover, the petitioners call on the court to disregard a contemporaneous Senate amendment to section 111(d) that — as even they admit — unambiguously preserves EPA’s authority to regulate carbon pollution.

The Senate amendment, like its House counterpart, was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by the President. It is the law of the land and cannot simply be read out of the Clean Air Act.

The petitioners’ theory also represents bad statutory interpretation because it would dramatically change the structure of the Clean Air Act in a way that Congress could never have intended – making it difficult or even impossible for EPA to protect the public from harmful pollutants from the dozens of industrial source categories whose emissions of hazardous air pollutants are regulated under section 112. In all of the extensive debate, committee reports, and other legislative history that led up to the enactment of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, there is not a shred of evidence that Congress intended to create loopholes in section 111(d) as the petitioners claim.

Faced with this reality, the petitioners insist – without any supporting evidence — that Congress wanted to avoid “double regulation” of source categories under sections 111(d) and 112. But it is not “double regulation” for EPA to regulate different health-harming pollutants from the same source category under different provisions of the Clean Air Act. In fact, the Clean Air Act has always permitted and even required such regulation. Many facilities in the power sector, for example, are currently regulated under multiple Clean Air Act programs addressing different air pollution problems that are associated with a variety of adverse health effects.

Further, the 1990 amendments include a provision stating that standards under section 112 must not be “interpreted, construed or applied to diminish or replace” more stringent requirements under section 111. This is a strong indication that Congress intended for section 112 to work seamlessly with, not displace, section 111(d).

EPA’s proposed interpretation of section 111(d) also has a long and bipartisan history – further supporting the reasonableness of the agency’s view and underscoring the bizarre and opportunistic nature of the petitioners’ theories.

As documented in a compelling brief filed by NYU’s Institute for Policy Integrity, EPA has adopted the view that section 111(d) applies to any pollutant not regulated under section 112 or section 108 in multiple rulemakings since 1990 — not just in the Obama Administration, but also the George W. Bush Administration, the Clinton Administration, and the Administration of George H.W. Bush, who actually signed the 1990 amendments.

Ultimately, the petitioner’s flimsy substantive claims only underscore the wisdom of the procedural bar against premature challenges to agency proposed rules.

EPA undoubtedly possesses the authority to limit carbon pollution from existing power plants under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act. That's good news for the families and communities that are afflicted by mercury and carbon pollution from fossil fuel power plants — the nation's single largest source of both health-harming contaminants.

Congress did not intend for our children to have to "pick their poisons," but instead created a seamless framework – which Republican and Democratic administrations alike have long carried out — to safeguard our health and our children's health from all harmful air pollution.

Also posted in Clean Air Act, Clean Power Plan, EPA litgation, Policy| Leave a comment

Vote-a-Rama Reveals Senators’ Environmental Agenda

It’s been a big news day in the U.S. Senate, with Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid announcing he won’t run for another term.

But that's not the only news.

Courtesy: Wikipedia

Courtesy: Wikipedia

We have had our eyes on the Senate’s marathon “Vote-a-Rama” budget process that wrapped up around three-thirty this morning.

A number of environmental and energy votes came and went in a flurry of two-minute debates. While the votes mean little in terms of law (the budget bill doesn’t even go to the president for signature), Senators on both sides of the aisle brought up measures as trial balloons to find out where Senators stand on issues that could resurface when Congress takes up other legislation in the future.

Disturbingly, but not surprisingly, polluter lobbyists were hard at work and Senators filed dozens of amendments attacking the Clean Air Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, and other environmental measures.

Others fought back with their own amendments calling for more — not less — action to protect our environment and health.

Incredibly, many of these quick attacks on the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and other bedrock measures were supported by a majority of Senators. This despite overwhelming public support — across party lines — for environmental laws, standards, and enforcement to protect the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the planet we leave our kids.

Only a handful of the environmental amendments that were filed were actually voted on. But expect more attacks this year and next.

The most dangerous attack was launched by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has made it a top priority to undermine EPA’s Clean Power Plan and give electric utilities a free pass on smokestack carbon pollution. His attack on the Clean Power Plan passed on a vote of 57-43.

(You can see the votes on the McConnell amendment #836 here. “Nay” is the pro-environment vote.)

Nevertheless, there are some positive takeaways.

Our pick for the most promising development was a climate amendment from Sen. Michael Bennet. The amendment promotes “national security, economic growth, and public health by addressing human-induced climate change through increased use of clean energy, energy efficiency, and reductions in carbon pollution.”

The Bennet amendment #1014 passed by a vote of 53-47, with all Democrats and seven Republicans supporting it — Sens. Ayotte, Collins, Graham, Heller, Murkowski, Kirk and Portman. (You can see how any Senator voted by clicking here. “Yea” is a pro-environment vote.)

Another positive takeaway — not all is lost with the Clean Power Plan or other actions EPA and President Obama are taking on climate. To the contrary, most environmental attacks require 60 votes to pass, not 40, in the Senate. So the 43 Senators who stood up to McConnell’s effort can be sufficient to beat back similar legislation or amendments down the road.

But clearly the margin is too thin, and it’s up to all of us to let our Senators know that we are paying attention and that we oppose these sneak attacks on America’s environmental and climate laws and rules.

Also posted in Clean Air Act, Climate Change Legislation, Policy| Comments are closed

EDF and Many Others Defend the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards at the Supreme Court

Source: Daderot (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On Wednesday (March 25th) EDF and a large group of allies will be at the U.S. Supreme Court as the Justices hear oral arguments on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.

EDF has been helping defend these life-saving standards since they were first challenged ­– and upheld – in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Why is EDF fighting for the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards?

Because they will save lives and protect our families and communities from the harmful effects of toxic air pollutants (including mercury, arsenic, and acid gases) emitted by the single largest source of such pollution in the U.S.: coal-fired power plants.

If you want to get all the legal details, you can read EDF’s brief – and all the other briefs in the case – on our website.

If not, here are two things you should know – points that jumped out at me from reading the many briefs filed in this case in support of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards:

  • By significantly reducing toxic air pollution from its single largest source, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will help ensure that the air we breathe and the fish we eat are cleaner and safer.
  • These pollution reductions absolutely can be achieved. In fact, most of the power sector has already installed pollution control technology to comply with the standards.

This is an incredibly important case for public health. One sign of that is the unusually large number of groups who have submitted briefs in support of these life-saving clean air protections.

In addition to EDF, a broad coalition of states, cities, power companies, medical associations, and clean air advocates are parties to the case in support of the EPA.

And that doesn’t include many more leading experts and affected organizations that have filed amicus curiae briefs.

For those who don’t speak Latin, amicus curiae means “friend of the court.”

A Supreme Court case is not a popularity contest, and the Justices focus first and foremost on the facts and applicable law. But their consideration of a case is often helped when interested citizens or organizations file “friend of the court” briefs. These briefs can offer insights on important technical or scientific issues, show how a particular community might be affected by the Court’s decision, or provide differing perspectives than those offered by the parties to the case.

Fortunately, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards have many “friends.”

They include: the American Thoracic Society (a group of more than 15,000 physicians, research scientists, nurses, and other healthcare professionals); leading pollution control experts; the Institute for Policy Integrity at NYU Law School; the Constitutional Accountability Center; the Union of Concerned Scientists; companies that manufacture technology for reducing air toxics from power plants; the National Congress of American Indians and a coalition of tribes and inter-tribal fish commissions; and a coalition of preeminent public health scientists led by Dr. Lynn Goldman, Dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.

Here’s a small sample of what these friends of the court have to say about the health effects of mercury and other air toxics from power plants:

Power plants emit acid gas, metals including mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, nickel, and chromium, and particulate matter that can penetrate deep into human lungs. All humans are susceptible to adverse health effects from these emissions, but pregnant women, fetuses, infants, children, elderly people, and people with preexisting health conditions are especially vulnerable.

(Amicus brief of American Thoracic Society at pages 2 and 3)

[I]t is reasonable to believe that any reductions in exposure that can be achieved will have benefits across the population. Even at low exposure levels, methylmercury can lead to reductions in IQ for developing children.  These deficits in IQ may not be clinically apparent in individual children, but on a population level they have cumulative impacts with large public health and economic consequences.

(Amicus brief of Health Scientists, Dr. Lynn Goldman, et al. at page 13)

The emissions harm Indian health, putting tribal members at unusually high risk for neurodevelopmental disorders, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune deficiencies, and other adverse health effects from methylmercury exposure. In addition, mercury emissions harm Indian culture, threatening longstanding traditions of fishing and fish consumption that are central to many tribes’ cultural identity. Finally, mercury emissions harm Indian subsistence, contaminating food sources that many tribal members depend on for survival.

(Amicus brief of National Congress of American Indians, et al. at page 4)

And here’s what other friends of the court say about the feasibility of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, and its implications for the power sector:

The experience of the states that have implemented mercury rules demonstrates that control of mercury emissions is possible with available technology and can be accomplished on a cost-effective basis and without compromising reliability. . . . [N]early 70 percent of total coal-fired capacity was either in compliance with the MATS or already had plans in place to achieve compliance at the end of 2012.

(Amicus brief of Experts in Air Pollution Control at page 32 and 34)

[Overturning MATS] would penalize those who responsibly sought to comply with the impending Rule and might be unable to recover their expenses for doing so, and would reward those who dragged their heels at the expense of public health.

(Amicus brief of Emission Control Companies at page 23)

This is a tremendous show of support for the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards from a broad and compelling group of leading experts and affected organizations.

In fact, this case is so important and involves so many parties that the Supreme Court has extended the usual amount of time allowed for argument. On Wednesday, the lawyers – including U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli for EPA – will have 90 minutes to argue the case, instead of the usual hour.

We at EDF are proud to stand with EPA, with all our allies, and with the many “friends of the court” to present a forceful case for cleaner, healthier air to the nation’s highest court.

Also posted in Clean Air Act, EPA litgation, Health, Partners for Change, Policy| Comments are closed

Ozone Pollution in the West: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Source: Wikipedia

By Jon Goldstein, Senior Policy Manager, US Climate and Energy Program

Long familiar in major urban areas, smog – what we experts call “ground-level ozone” pollution – is quickly becoming a serious problem in the rural mountain west, thanks to rapid expansion in oil and gas development. Smog serious health impacts like aggravated asthma, chronic bronchitis, heart attacks, and even premature death. In areas like the Upper Green River Basin in Wyoming, smog levels have sometimes rivaled those in Los Angeles.

Now, the Environmental Protection Agency and several western states are putting the pieces in place to fix this problem: EPA through proposed revisions to  the health-based ozone standard that will better protect people from pollution, and states like Wyoming and Colorado through strong policies that are helping to reduce the sources of ozone pollution in the oil and gas industry.

In official public comments filed this week with EPA, EDF and a broad coalition of western environmental and conservation groups supported a more protective ozone standard and pointed out the importance of this issue to the intermountain west–where most of the country’s oil and gas production from federal lands occurs.

Ozone is a story with important public health consequences that calls to mind the old Western, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” though perhaps in a slightly different order.

The Bad:

Ozone is a harmful air pollutant, and bad news from a health perspective. Countless studies (including those in the mountain west) have shown that elevated levels of ozone pollution can cause painful breathing, lung inflammation, and are associated with increased hospital admissions and emergency room visits. EPA’s independent expert science panel, on the basis of the latest scientific evidence, unanimously recommended a stronger federal ozone limit to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety, as the law requires.

Strong ozone standards are just as necessary today in intermountain west – where many residents are living amidst large-scale oil and gas developments – as in urban settings. That’s why our comments urge EPA to revise the existing federal ozone pollution standard of 75 parts per billion (ppb) to a more protective 60 ppb.

The Ugly:

As drilling has rapidly increased in areas like Wyoming’s Upper Green River Basin, Utah’s Uinta Basin, the San Juan Basin in New Mexico and in suburban areas of Denver, Colorado so too have harmful ozone levels. In all, as many as thirty-three counties currently in attainment across the Intermountain West have experienced ozone levels above the range recommended by EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. Of these 33 counties, 17 (52%) are home to oil and gas development.6 Specifically:

  • Wyoming: Fremont, Laramie, Teton, Uinta, Campbell, Carbon counties;
  • Colorado: El Paso, La Plata, Montezuma, Mesa, Rio Blanco and Garfield counties;
  • Utah: Weber, Utah, Tooele, Washington, Box Elder, Carbon, San Juan, Salt Lake, Davis, Duchesne, and Cache counties;
  • New Mexico: Dona Ana, Bernalillo, Eddy, San Juan, Valencia, Luna, Lea, Santa Fe, Grant, and Sandoval counties.

To be clear, the latest available science and EPA’s independent scientific advisors along with the nation’s leading public health and medical societies all suggest a stronger standard is needed to protect public health; this is not a problem of EPA’s making. Citizens in these counties already face exposure to potentially unhealthy levels of ozone pollution.  The only thing that’s changing is that EPA is acting, consistent with its responsibilities under the nation’s clean air laws, to strengthen those standards so they reflect latest scientific information and can provide people with transparent information about air quality in their communities.

Without additional commonsense air quality measures, growing oil and gas development expected in the mountain west could only compound this problem. In Wyoming, for instance, there are plans for as many as 34,246 new oil and gas wells across the state, some in locations that impact existing ozone nonattainment areas, and some that may cause future compliance concerns.

The Good:

Fortunately, it’s not too late to fix the problem. Several states have already enacted or are finalizing emissions reduction requirements on pollution from the oil and gas industry that will bring about substantial reductions in emissions and help to reduce ozone pollution:

  • Colorado’s nationally-leading rules that substantially reduce emissions of methane and volatile organic compounds from oil and gas production.
  • Wyoming’s recently instituted requirements to reduce pollution from new and modified oil and gas sources in the Upper Green River Basin through regular, mandatory leak detection inspections. A statewide approach is needed to better target new problem areas, but the state deserves praise for a proposal to extend these strong requirements to existing pollution sources in the basin as well.
  • Utah has made some positive steps, in particular, by requiring that devices known as pneumatic controllers used by the oil and gas industry be retrofitted with lower emitting models.

Coupled with recently announced plans for a federal methane rule from EPA and rule to minimize waste from the Bureau of Land Management, these state requirements will have positive impacts for air quality. Moreover, policies that keep methane – the main ingredient in natural gas – out of the air and in the pipeline benefit not only the environment, but also the industry (through additional gas sales) as well as the beneficiaries of the royalties paid on a resource that’s no longer being wasted.

Better standards are needed to protect us all from ozone pollution, but luckily, sensible controls on the major sources of this pollution in the western US are there for the taking. As states in the region and federal regulators continue to lead toward better pollution reduction rules, this can be one Western with a happy ending.

This post originally appeared on our Energy Exchange blog.

Also posted in Energy, Health, Policy| Comments are closed

A Little-Known Federal Rule Brings Invisible Pollution Into Focus

Cropped rig houseLegal fellow Jess Portmess also contributed to this post.

Unlike an oil spill, most greenhouse gas emissions are invisible to the naked eye. Though we can’t see them, this pollution represents a daily threat to our environment and communities, and it is important to understand the extent of this pollution and where it comes from.

This is why in 2010 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized a rule requiring facilities in the oil and gas industry to report yearly emissions from their operations.

The Rule is part of a larger greenhouse gas measurement, reporting, and disclosure program called for by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush. By coincidence, the rule is known as Subpart W.

The emissions data required by the Rule helps communities near oil and natural gas development better understand pollution sources, and gives companies better ways to identify opportunities to reduce emissions.

As these policies have gotten stronger under the Obama administration, industry has continued to fight them in federal court. Read More »

Also posted in Energy, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Policy| Comments are closed
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    Climate & Air Policy Specialist

    Pamela Campos
    Attorney

    Kritee
    High Meadows Scientist