Selected category: Policy

Why “Just Say No” is Just Plain Wrong: the Sound Legal Basis for the Clean Power Plan

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Kentucky power plant. Photo by Cindy Cornett Seigle/Flickr

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will soon finalize the Clean Power Plan — a suite of historic Clean Air Act standards that will establish the first nationwide limits on carbon pollution from America’s fossil fuel-fired power plants. Rigorous carbon pollution standards for the nation’s power sector will yield immense benefits for the health of our families and communities, for the American economy, and for a safer climate for our children.

Yet in the months leading up to the release of the Clean Power Plan clean air standards, coal companies and other entities that oppose reasonable limits on carbon pollution have lobbed a series of flawed and failed lawsuits directed at stopping EPA from finishing its work. Now, some power companies and their allies have concocted new – and equally misguided – attacks against the Clean Power Plan.

They’ve been suggesting that the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards case, which held that EPA must take costs into account when making a threshold decision whether to proceed with emissions limits on toxic pollution was a blow against the Clean Power Plan. They’ve also been arguing that states should “Just Say No” to developing plans for implementing the Clean Power Plan’s vital protections to limit carbon pollution for climate and public health.

As we explain below, these critics are flat wrong – on the meaning of the Supreme Court’s decision, on the decision’s implications for the Clean Power Plan, and on the validity of “just saying no.”

Climate and Public Health Benefits of the Clean Power Plan

Before turning to the Supreme Court’s decision, let’s make one thing clear — the “Just Say No” camp is urging states to condemn our families and communities to a future of unlimited carbon pollution and compromised public health. They’re also urging us to forego a tremendous economic opportunity associated with the race to deploy more clean energy solutions, drive down pollution, and increase jobs.

The Clean Power Plan is expected to bring historic health and environmental benefits, both in the near term and for future generations. As proposed, the Clean Power Plan would significantly reduce carbon pollution from the nation’s largest source – existing fossil fuel power plants that account for nearly 40 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. Reductions of other harmful pollutants will be just as profound. Based on the proposed rule, EPA estimates that by 2030, when the Clean Power Plan is fully in effect, power sector emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particular matter will be reduced by almost 30 percent compared to a business-as-usual scenario. Significant reductions would begin to take place many years earlier.

That means thousands of avoided deaths, heart attacks, and childhood asthma attacks each year — all by the time a child born today starts kindergarten. EPA estimates that the climate and public health benefits of the proposed Clean Power Plan would have an economic value of up to $93 billion per year by 2030 – or as much as eleven dollars for every dollar spent on compliance.

The Supreme Court Mercury Decision and the Clean Power Plan

Yet some opponents of the Clean Power Plan, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and large polluters, are urging states to hold off on implementing the Clean Power Plan. They claim — falsely — that the Supreme Court invalidated the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards when it decided Michigan v. EPA, so it was a waste of money for power plants to have complied with the Mercury standards. They say the same thing might happen with the Clean Power Plan.

That’s just plain wrong.

The Supreme Court did not invalidate the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. The Court only held that EPA should have taken into account the costs of the standards when the Agency made its initial legal determination that it is “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury and other air toxics from power plants. As examined below, EPA considered costs in establishing the resulting emissions standards. Further, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards remain in effect after the Court’s decision, and power plants are still required to comply. (The case now goes back to a lower court for further consideration).

In the coming weeks and months, EPA will respond to Michigan v. EPA. There is every reason to believe EPA can quickly amend its “appropriate and necessary” finding to address the Supreme Court’s decision, without affecting the substance of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. This is because EPA has already conducted an extensive review of both the costs and benefits of the standards, and that review contains overwhelming evidence that the benefits of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards are vastly disproportionate to the costs.

Controlling air toxics for power plants, for example, will have the important benefit of reducing human exposure to harmful particulate matter – helping prevent 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, and 130,000 asthma attacks each year. These “co-benefits” have an estimated value of up to $90 billion per year, or up to nine dollars for every dollar projected to be spent on compliance. That figure does not even take into account the critical benefits associated with reduced exposure to the neurotoxic and carcinogenic pollutants regulated under the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, all of which are emitted by the power sector in huge quantities, and all of which will be dramatically reduced as a result of the standards. There is no question that the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards are “appropriate and necessary” even when costs are considered.

Moreover, the courts will almost certainly keep the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards in place during the interim period while EPA responds to the Supreme Court’s decision. This is a common course of action when the courts find that EPA needs to go back and address legal or technical issues in a Clean Air Act regulation – especially in the situation we face with the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, where the issues are straightforward to resolve and there are significant public health protections at stake.

The Clean Power Plan — Different Rule, Different Issues

Polluters and their allies are even more off-base when it comes to the impacts of the latest Supreme Court decision on the Clean Power Plan.

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards case was about a narrow interpretive issue in section 112 of the Clean Air Act — whether EPA had to consider costs in its “appropriate and necessary” finding. Unlike the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, the Clean Power Plan is authorized by section 111 of the Clean Air Act. Section 111 contains no reference to an “appropriate and necessary” finding. So the Supreme Court’s interpretation of section 112 doesn’t have any direct relevance to section 111.

Under section 111, EPA does have to make a threshold finding that a source category “contributes significantly to air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” EPA already made this finding when it first issued section 111 standards for power plants back in the 1970’s. In 2009, EPA made a further finding that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases “endanger public health and welfare” – a finding that the courts subsequently upheld against numerous industry challenges.

It’s also clear that EPA has considered costs extensively throughout the rulemaking process for the Clean Power Plan, as section 111 requires. As noted above, EPA found that the total benefits of the proposed Clean Power Plan exceed compliance costs by a wide margin. This remains true even when considering the climate and public health benefits separately — EPA’s central estimate of the climate benefits alone is $31 billion per year by 2030, or over three –and-a-half-times the cost of compliance. The public health benefits in that same year are valued at an additional $27 to 62 billion.

Cost considerations are woven into the structure of the proposed Clean Power Plan, which maximizes flexibility to enable compliance using the most cost-effective methods available. Indeed, EPA’s approach is vastly less expensive than the “end of the pipe” solutions some of the Clean Power Plan’s opponents claim are the better approach under the law.

Legal Experts Confirm the Strong Legal Basis for the Clean Power Plan

The cynical premise of the “Just Say No” campaign also ignores the chorus of influential legal experts who have affirmed the strong legal basis for the Clean Power Plan. Leading law enforcement officials, former EPA officials, and prominent legal scholars have concluded that the Clean Power Plan is firmly within EPA’s long-standing authority under the Clean Air Act.

A few illustrative statements include:

The Text, Structure, and History of the Clean Air Act Confirm EPA’s Authority to Regulate Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Power Plants Under Section 111(d). —Attorneys General of the States of New York, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia, in brief filed in Murray Energy Corp. v. Environmental Protection Agency, No. 14-1112 (D.C. Cir. Dec. 23, 2014)

The EPA has authority under the 1990 Clean Air Act, an authority affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, to set these public health protections against carbon pollution. — Carol M. Browner (EPA Administrator under the Clinton Administration) & Alex Laskey, With New Power Plant Rules, Energy Efficiency Checks All the Boxes

Critics of the [Clean Power Plan] say that President Obama is making an end run around Congress, stretching the law to achieve by executive action what he could not accomplish through the legislative branch. This is flat wrong. More than four decades ago, Congress expressed its clear desire to regulate pollution from power plants, in the form of the Clean Air Act. I know, because I worked on the legislation, including the key part of the act—Section 111—that the Obama administration is using to justify its move. — Leon Billings, The Obscure 1970 Compromise That Made Obama’s Climate Rules Possible

Limiting Greenhouse Gas emissions from existing power plants is the next logical step after the Supreme Court and other courts have upheld EPA’s authority and obligation to address this issue. A system-wide approach provides needed flexibility and reduces costs, as well as encouraging investment in lower-emitting generation. EPA has wisely left the states a lot of discretion rather than mandating specific measures as some had wanted. – E. Donald Elliott, EPA General Counsel under President George H.W. Bush, Obama’s Section 111d Plan Has Support From George H.W. Bush’s EPA General Counsel, Utility Executives

EPA’s approach is neither unprecedented nor unlimited. Since 1970, the [Clean Air Act] has called on states to make policy choices and use their governmental powers in the manner that this rule might require. Indeed, many of the policy choices needed to comply with EPA’s proposal would stem from the special characteristics of the electricity market and not from any new EPA initiative. — William F. Pedersen, Senior Counsel, Perkins Coie, Does EPA’s §111(d) Proposal Rely on an Unprecedented and Legally Forbidden Approach to Emission Reduction?, Environmental Law Reporter (April 2015)

There is just case law building on case law that says, [the Clean Power Plan] is perfectly constitutional. — Prof. Jody Freeman, Harvard Law School, Harvard Law's Lazarus and Freeman discuss federal court Power Plan hearing, Tribe arguments,E&ENews PM (April 20, 2015)

Clean Air Act regulations of existing power plants implemented by presidents of both parties over the past quarter of a century have achieved vitally important protections for public health and the environment through regulatory tools carefully designed to minimize costs. By following in the footsteps of earlier rules, the Clean Power Plan could be similarly transformative. The claim that it is unprecedented and unconstitutional is wrong on the facts and wrong on the law. – Ricky Revesz, Dean Emeritus and Lawrence King Professor of Law, NYU School of Law, Obama’s professor on Clean Power Plan – Wrong on the facts and law

EPA’s Strong Record of Success in Defending Clean Air Act Rules

Proponents of the “Just Say No” campaign also hope that the public will overlook EPA’s strong track record of success in defending Clean Air Act rules in the nation’s federal courts.  Indeed, almost all of the major Clean Air Act rules that have so successfully protected human health and the environment in recent years have undergone intense legal challenges – and most of these challenges have failed.

Consider these recent examples:

  • EPA v. EME Homer City Generation (U.S. Supreme Court, 2014) — In a major victory for EPA, the Supreme Court reversed a D.C. Circuit decision invalidating the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule.  
  • Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA (U.S. Supreme Court, 2014) — The Supreme Court upheld EPA’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act requiring that new and modified industrial facilities obtain permits limiting their emissions of greenhouse gases to reflect “best available control technology.” The Court did rule against EPA on the question of whether the “best available control technology” requirement applies to smaller facilities. However, EPA itself had concluded those requirements would pose serious practical problems and yield relatively small pollution control benefits.
  • Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. EPA (D.C. Circuit, 2012) — The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld EPA’s science-based finding that climate pollution endangers public health and welfare, and EPA’s first generation of greenhouse gas emission standards for passenger vehicles. The Supreme Court declined to review either of these critical holdings, laying the groundwork for subsequent rules reducing greenhouse gas emissions from passenger vehicles and medium and heavy duty trucks.
  • Delta Construction Co. v. EPA (D.C. Circuit, 2015) – The D.C. Circuit dismissed, on procedural grounds, multiple legal challenges to EPA’s first greenhouse gas standards for medium and heavy duty vehicles.
  • National Association of Manufacturers v. EPA (U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, 2014) — EPA fended off challenges to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter (better known as soot).

The health and environmental benefits of the Clean Power Plan will be invaluable. As EPA prepares for the inevitable legal attacks, it has a strong legal foundation and a track record of litigation success. Nothing about the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards decision changed that.

Also posted in Clean Air Act, Clean Power Plan, Climate Change Legislation, Health, News| Leave a comment

Oklahoma Court Rejects Yet Another Flawed Challenge to the Proposed Clean Power Plan

rp_scales_of_justice.pngThe Clean Power Plan has now won a second round in court – before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finished writing it.

The federal district court for the Northern District of Oklahoma rejected another premature challenge on Friday to the proposed standards for carbon pollution from existing fossil fuel power plants.

The first – a challenge brought by Murray Energy Corporation and several states, including Oklahoma – was dismissed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit just last month. In that decision, the D.C. Circuit court found petitioners’ attack on the Clean Power Plan was premature — relying on the plain text of the Clean Air Act, bedrock principles of administrative law, and (as the petitioners themselves acknowledged) the unbroken practice in the D.C. Circuit allowing challenges only to final agency actions.

This finality requirement is critically important to the integrity of the administrative process, ensuring the agency has an opportunity to consider and incorporate public input and that a reviewing court evaluates the agency’s final, carefully-determined course of action.

In last month’s decision, the D.C. Circuit noted that petitioners were “champing at the bit” to challenge the Clean Power Plan. True to form, the state of Oklahoma filed another challenge – pressing substantially similar claims to those already rejected by the D.C. Circuit, but this time seeking judicial review in Oklahoma federal district court.

If the challenges in the D.C. Circuit represented an attempted end run around the judicial review provisions of the Clean Air Act, then here the plaintiffs tried a double end run — adding to their flawed premature challenge by seeking judicial review in the wrong court.

The Clean Air Act provides that a challenge to any “standard of performance or requirement under section [111]” — which will include EPA’s Clean Power Plan, when finalized — must be filed in the D.C. Circuit. The Clean Air Act vests the D.C. Circuit with this authority to ensure uniform and consistent review of actions that apply nationally.

The Oklahoma federal district court made short work of the suit.

On Friday, the court firmly rejected the challenges – dismissing them on the basis of the plaintiffs’ brief alone, without even waiting for EPA’s response.

The Oklahoma federal district court decision both reaffirmed the courts’ authority to review only final agency actions, and identified the D.C. Circuit as the proper venue for challenging the Clean Power Plan, when it is finalized.

In the decision, written by Oklahoma federal district court Judge Claire Eagen, the court said:

The D.C. Circuit has already determined that the proposed emission standards are not a final agency action, and that court has denied a petition to review the proposed emission standards before they become a final rule. (Page 9)

The decision also says:

Even if the Court found that it would not be premature to exercise jurisdiction over this case, plaintiffs have failed to show that jurisdictional review provision of the CAA would permit this Court to exercise jurisdiction over the case . . . . The ultimate issue of whether the EPA has the authority to promulgate the disputed emission standards pursuant to § 7411(d) must be decided by the court with exclusive jurisdiction over these matters, and that court is the D.C. Circuit. (Page 9 – Emphasis Added)

Taken together, these decisions should give pause to litigants contemplating procedurally-flawed legal challenges — but unfortunately, Oklahoma is continuing to press these misguided claims in an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. And these are just the latest in a series of legally-unfoundedattacks on these critical standards.

The health and environmental benefits of the Clean Power Plan could be profound. As EPA prepares for the inevitable legal challenges to come, it has a strong track record of defending the Clean Power Plan and other important clean air safeguards against legal attacks. That's good news for the families and communities that are afflicted by carbon pollution from fossil fuel-fired power plants — the nation's single largest source of this climate-destabilizing pollution.

Also posted in Clean Power Plan, EPA litgation, News| Comments are closed

FERC, Grid Operator, Others File Supreme Court Briefs in Demand Response Case

Source: iStock

Source: iStock

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), a grid operator, states, and other parties just filed briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court in a case that could decide whether Americans have access to low-cost, clean and reliable electricity.

The case, EPSA v. FERC, revolves around demand response, a resource that helps keep prices low and the lights on – and does so while also being environmentally friendly.

In 2013, for example, demand response saved customers in the mid-Atlantic region close to 12 billion dollars. And during the polar vortex, which threatened the North-East with freezing cold in 2014, the resource helped prevent black-outs.

The clean energy rule at issue in this case is called FERC Order 745. EDF has been writing about this demand response case throughout the past year. We’ve been fighting for low-cost demand response and we’ll keep fighting in the Supreme Court.

History of the Case

The case involves a FERC rule that allows demand response – a low-cost, clean, and reliable energy conservation resource – the chance to compete fairly in our nation’s wholesale energy market.

EDF and a broad coalition of consumer advocates, environmental groups, companies, and industry organizations support it.

Demand Response – How It Works, Why It’s Popular

The broad support for demand response exists because of how the resource works.

Demand response reduces energy demand when power is needed most, rather than increasing supply from costly, carbon–emitting fuels. It relies on people and technology, not power plants, to affordably meet our country’s rising electricity needs. In so doing, it reduces costs for everyone by taking the place of very expensive generation.

Anyone in favor of cleaner, more reliable, lower-cost energy has a reason to support demand response.

What’s at Issue

FERC is the federal agency responsible for keeping our electricity rates “just and reasonable” (in other words, for making sure we get fairly priced electricity).

FERC created Order 745 to further that goal. Order 745 allows demand response access to the wholesale energy market, where electricity is bought and sold. It levels the playing field between demand response and traditional sources of electricity generation, like coal.

In doing so, demand response has been able to reduce our use of unneeded, costly electricity – the exact type of electricity that should be limited if one wants “just and reasonable” rates.

Electricity producers challenged FERC’s Order 745, arguing that the agency lacked jurisdiction to create it. A three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Court, in a split 2-to-1 decision, ruled in favor of the challengers.

Now FERC — as well as states, demand response providers, grid operators, and others – have stated their case to the Supreme Court.

The Case Before the Court

In its just-filed brief, the Solicitor General said on behalf of FERC:

Given that demand-response programs unquestionably confer significant benefits on wholesale markets, including lower rates, there is no defensible justification for concluding that the [Federal Power Act] nevertheless altogether excludes the programs from wholesale markets or FERC regulation. (FERC brief page 34)

The FERC brief also says:

By exercising authority over wholesale demand-response programs, FERC can ensure that a practice that occurs in wholesale markets, and has been widely recognized as tremendously important to the efficient functioning of those markets, will continue to provide benefits to consumers and the economy and is deployed in a way that results in just and reasonable wholesale rates and a reliable electricity system. (FERC brief page 45)

Another party to the case, demand response company EnerNOC, said in its brief:

Without demand response participation, wholesale energy markets will not ‘function…effectively’: Competition will be constrained; and prices will be higher. (EnerNOC brief page 39)

What Happens Next

Next, attention will turn to the amicus briefs – briefs filed in support of the parties to the case. Those, including EDF’s amicus brief, will be filed by July 16.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments in the case this fall.

You can find all the briefs in the case here. And EDF will keep you updated as the case moves forward.

Also posted in Economics, Energy, News| Comments are closed

The Mercury Standards, Post-Supreme Court – Still in Effect, Still Protecting Americans

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Supreme Court of the United States

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) first proposed the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards back in 2011, at a news conference at Children’s Hospital with cheering children and families surrounding the speakers.

They were cheering because the Mercury Standards were the single most important clean air measure of our generation – designed to protect Americans from some of the worst, most dangerous types of air pollution.

They still are.

This week’s disappointing Supreme Court decision, remanding the standards back to the D.C. Circuit Court for further analysis, has distracted from that fact.

But the fact remains – the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards are a suite of life-saving protections against some of the most health-harming substances emitted by coal and oil-fired power plants, including mercury, arsenic and other heavy metals, and acid gases.

Here’s What Happened

Coal- and oil-fired power plants are by far the largest emitters of these pollutants, which are dangerous to human health even in small doses. Mercury causes brain damage in children, metal toxics like chromium and nickel cause cancer, and acid gases cause respiratory problems.

This week, the Supreme Court held that EPA should have considered the costs of regulation when it made a threshold determination under section 112 of the Clean Air Act that it is “appropriate and necessary” to move forward with the first-ever national limits for these noxious emissions. It is now up to EPA to determine the best way to respond to the decision.

(The case was Michigan v. EPA. EDF was a party to the case. You can read the decision and the sharp dissent here.)

What does the Supreme Court ruling mean for the Mercury Air Toxics Standards?

Here are three important things you should know.

First — there is every reason to believe EPA can quickly amend its “appropriate and necessary” finding to address the Supreme Court’s decision, without affecting the substance of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards themselves.

Importantly, the Court left it up to EPA to determine how to evaluate costs and how to weigh those costs against the benefits of regulation. As the Court’s opinion acknowledged, EPA has already conducted an extensive review of both the costs and benefits of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards as part of the regulatory analyses most agencies carry out under Executive Order 12866. That analysis contains overwhelming evidence showing that the benefits of MATS far outweigh its costs.

According to EPA, the monetized benefits of the Mercury and Air Toxics are expected to be up to $90 billion per year.

That amount reflects the enormous health benefits Americans will get from the standards. EPA estimates that they will prevent 11,000 premature deaths, up to 4,700 heart attacks, and up to 130,000 asthma attacks each year.

There are substantial and additional non-monetized benefits associated with reduced exposure to mercury and other harmful pollutants regulated by the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.

Moreover, in spite of the power industry’s claims, reducing these emissions has proven much less expensive than initially projected. Major power companies such as AEP, NRG, and FirstEnergy have been reporting to their investors that the costs of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards are as much as 70 percent lower than they first estimated.

The bottom line is that the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards are an extraordinarily beneficial public health measure and are providing healthier, longer lives for millions of Americans at a fraction of the costs predicted.

Second — the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards can and should continue to be implemented while EPA amends its “appropriate and necessary finding.”

The Supreme Court’s opinion did not prohibit the implementation of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards – and in the past, the appellate courts have often allowed Clean Air Act regulations to remain in place while EPA amends them to address technical or legal issues.  

In this case, a large majority of American power plants are already in compliance with the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards — in many instances because they have been upgrading pollution controls to comply with state emission standards or other Clean Air Act requirements.  M.J. Bradley & Associates recently estimated that about 70 percent of the U.S. coal fleet had installed pollution controls to comply with the standards by the April 2015 deadline. In addition, a substantial number of plants have received one-year extensions to this compliance deadline and are now working to install pollution controls by April 2016.

Given the importance of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards to public health, and the overwhelming likelihood that EPA will be able to quickly address the Court’s decision, there is no reason that power plants should be allowed to delay installing pollution controls or cease operating already-installed pollution controls.

Third – the Supreme Court decision has no adverse implications for EPA’s Clean Power Plan – despite the wild claims being made by some opponents of these vital limits on carbon pollution from power plants.

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and the Clean Power Plan are based on entirely separate Clean Air Act authorities that reside in separate parts of the statute. The authority EPA is acting on to develop the Clean Power Plan expressly provides for the consideration of costs, and EPA has carefully taken costs into account in the Clean Power Plan in the manner required by the statute. Thus, claims that the ruling on the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards should somehow cast doubt on the legality of the Clean Power Plan are severely misguided.

Summing It Up

Marian Burton, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, summed it up perfectly back in 2011, when the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards were first proposed:

Dirty air makes children sick … If you think it's an expensive process to put a scrubber on a smokestack, you should see how much it costs over a lifetime to treat a child with a preventable birth defect.

That’s why hundreds of thousands of Americans sent comments to EPA in support of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.

It’s why EDF and so many other health, environmental, and social justice groups will go back to the D.C. Circuit Court to defend the standards.

We’ll keep fighting to make sure the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards are fully implemented so we can realize the promise of the Clean Air Act — and make sure all Americans have safe, healthy air to breathe.

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Pope Francis and climate change: Thoughts from a Catholic environmentalist

Source: Flickr/Catholic Church

It’s not often that my Catholic faith intersects with my work communicating about international climate change issues.

That’s changed now that Pope Francis is expected to release a statement of official church teaching this summer on the environment and climate change. It’s making headlines again this week, as the pope convenes a summit on climate change.

Known as an encyclical, it’s expected to reflect on Catholic teaching as it applies to the world today, and focus on the moral obligation to protect creation and humankind – especially the world’s most vulnerable people.

That Pope Francis – dubbed the “rock star pope” – will make such a statement on environmental protection is not surprising to those familiar with his and the Catholic Church’s position on the environment, the latter of which has long taught the importance of humans taking care of the Earth.

Caring for Earth part of our faith

The encyclical will formally be on “ecology,” with climate change playing a central role.

Climate touches everything, including people. Pollution that causes global warming also triggers asthma. Warmer temperatures mean crops and people’s livelihoods are jeopardized, while diseases such as West Nile and Lyme disease spread. Sea-level rise means people lose their homes.

These effects can still make climate change seem unrelated to the faith, far in the future and overwhelming. But Pope Francis is calling on us to see that it’s none of those.

Similarly, when I taught Sunday school to young children, we didn’t address the complexities of Catholic theology. We focused on Catholics’ belief that God provided humans with nature and its animals, trees and air for us to enjoy and protect.

The poor feel brunt of climate change

As an environmentalist, I’ve helped bring attention to my Environmental Defense Fund colleagues’ work with people who are feeling the impact of climate change first-hand.

In Brazil, the country with the world’s largest Catholic community, indigenous groups are already experiencing changes in the Amazon’s rainfall and river levels, fire patterns and climate systems they used to depend on for growing crops. And in India, farmers and rural women are already experiencing weather events consistent with a changing climate.

We know there are solutions to climate change. The United States and the world made important advances on climate and energy in the past year, and we believe we can stop the rise in greenhouse gas emissions and see them begin to decline in thenext five years.

Timing of pope’s document critical

The encyclical is a call to action for all of us to read the document and think more deeply about our relationship with the world. It asks us to consider what we can do – personally, in our community and parish, at the state and national level, and internationally.

The release of the encyclical comes in advance of international climate negotiations in Paris this December, where countries will seek to build an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

By staking out the Vatican’s position on climate change, the pope is telling the world that protecting the environment is not a niche issue – it’s a human, personal and moral issue.

This post originally appeared on our EDF Voices blog.

Also posted in Partners for Change, Setting the Facts Straight, What Others are Saying| Comments are closed

NERC's Report is Flawed: We Can Reduce Climate Pollution and Ensure Electric Reliability

power-poles-503935_1920If reducing climate pollution from power plants were a football game, the U.S. team would be halfway to the goal line while fans were still singing the national anthem.

That is, we have already gotten about halfway to the expected goals of the Clean Power Plan – before the rule is even final.

The Clean Power Plan is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) historic effort to place the first-ever limits on climate pollution from our country’s existing fleet of fossil fuel-fired power plants. When it’s finalized this summer, it’s expected to call for a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions compared to 2005 levels — but U.S. power plant emissions have already fallen 15 percent compared to 2005 levels.

That’s because renewable energy, energy efficiency resources, and natural gas generation have been steadily deployed and growing for years. Even conservative estimates forecast continued growth of these resources — which makes last week’s report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) seem really strange.

NERC’s report about the Clean Power Plan’s impacts on electric grid reliability makes predictions that starkly contrast from the progress we’re already seeing.

How did this departure from reality happen?

It’s due in large part to severely flawed assumptions underlying NERC’s analysis, which yield unrealistic results.

Those flawed assumptions cause NERC to greatly overstate the generation mix changes required to meet the Clean Power Plan. The NERC Assessment’s assumptions regarding energy efficiency, renewable energy deployment, and retirement modeling are at odds with both recent experience and current trends.

Unrealistically Low Energy Efficiency Gains

NERC assumes that demand for electricity will grow at an average of one percent per year through 2030, even after accounting for growth in energy efficiency investments. That growth rate is more than 40 percent higher than the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts.

It also fails to reflect likely energy efficiency growth. An analysis by McKinsey & Company found that implementing only those efficiency measures that pay for themselves would reduce the nation’s total end-use energy consumption by 23 percent by 2020.

Arbitrary and Unrealistic Projections on Wind and Solar Expansion  

NERC predicts expansions of wind and solar power that are far below those observed in recent years.

U.S. solar capacity stood at 20.5 gigawatts at the end of 2014. The NERC Assessment predicts an addition of 13 to 20 gigawatts of solar energy between 2016 and 2030 — when solar capacity is expected to grow by 20 gigawatts over the next two years alone.

The U.S. wind industry is also expected to add 18 gigawatts of new capacity in the next two years.

NERC’s low-ball assumptions greatly limit renewable energy deployment in their study. This in turn greatly increases the burden on other compliance options, namely coal-to-gas generation shifting.

Failure to Account for Dynamic Grid Reliability Management Tools

NERC assumes that the Clean Power Plan will drive coal power plant retirements over its entire life-span. However, numerous studies — including one by the Brattle Group and three by the Analysis Group, show that total output and emissions from coal units can decrease without retiring units that are needed to operate on occasion in order to maintain electric reliability.

There are also numerous tools and processes available to grid operators to ensure reliability in light of dynamic market, technological and regulatory change, including capacity and energy markets, resource adequacy forecasting, and reliability must-run contracts.

These instruments, for example, have worked well to maintain adequate capacity during the recent wave of coal-fired power plant retirements, so much so that the electric grid has added an average of roughly 30 gigawatts of total power every year since 2000. The NERC Assessment, however, finds only 11 to12 gigawatts of total power will be added every year – a significant departure from the past 15 years of evidence.

A History of Inaccurate Assessments

This report is not the first time that NERC has issued an inaccurate assessment of threats to reliability.

NERC has assessed previous public health and environmental safeguards, each time raising reliability concerns that were not borne out in reality.

  • In 2011, NERC issued its Long-Term Reliability Assessment, which looked at the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, the Cross State Air Pollution Rule, the Clean Water Act Cooling Water Intake Structures rule, and the Coal Combustion Residuals rule. NERC raised numerous reliability concerns about these protections, which the EPA noted at the time were flawed and exaggerated. None of NERC’s concerns have manifested during implementation of these standards.
  • In a 2011 companion study, NERC issued its Potential Impacts of Future Environmental Regulations about the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and a number of other regulations. NERC again raised reliability concerns, none of which have occurred in practice.
  • In its 2007 Long-Term Reliability Assessment, NERC predicted several regions, including New England and New York State, would drop below target capacity margins, threatening reliability. NERC’s prediction was based on a number of factors, including proposed environmental protections. Some power generators used the report to oppose to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. NERC’s predicted reliability shortfalls did not occur, nor has the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative caused reliability issues – even while emissions fell almost 50 percent below the region-wide emissions cap.
  • In 2000, NERC drafted a review of EPA’s nitrogen oxide emissions standards for eastern power plants, knows as the NOx SIP Call. Yet again, NERC predicted a number of reliability concerns that did not occur after the rule was implemented.

NERC has repeatedly produced analyses indicating that public health and environmental safeguards will come at the expense of electric reliability – and these analyses have consistently been contradicted by reality. In fact, emission standards have never caused a reliability problem in the more than four decades that EPA has been administering the Clean Air Act.

NERC’s newest report is no better. It gives no solid reasons to doubt that the Clean Power Plan will be compatible with a reliable electric grid.  

For a clearer picture of the link between reliability and environmental protections, read this post by my colleague Cheryl Roberto, a former Commissioner of the Ohio Public Utilities Commission and electric system operator.

You might also like EDF’s fact sheet about the Clean Power Plan and the latest flawed NERC report.

The progress made in the past demonstrates that our nation is already approaching the goal line under the Clean Power Plan. The tremendous flexibility that the Clean Power Plan provides to states and power companies alike, together with time-tested grid management tools, provides the framework we need to reach the goal line — protecting our communities and families from dangerous carbon pollution, strengthening our economy, and providing a steady flow of cost-effective electricity.

Also posted in Clean Air Act, Clean Power Plan, Energy, Setting the Facts Straight| Comments are closed
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