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Clashing Over Carbon

Critics say the Clean Power Plan would be more flexible if it provided ... fewer options

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In June, environmentalists cheered when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed the first national plan for reducing carbon-dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants. The Clean Power Plan would require each state to submit a plan for cutting emissions about 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

That would be a noteworthy down payment on reining in climate change, and it would also lessen other harmful pollution, like particulates. But while the EPA claimed its authority under the federal Clean Air Act, officials in states like Pennsylvania are working to weaken and delay the plan.

On Sept. 9, for instance, Tom Corbett and 14 other Republican governors wrote to President Obama to oppose the Clean Power Plan. They contend that the EPA overshot its powers under the Clean Air Act. The signatories' arguments resemble those of the 12 states that in August actually sued the EPA over the Clean Power Plan. While Pennsylvania was not among those plaintiffs (which include Alabama, Indiana and Wyoming), it's notable that most states in both groups critical of the plan are big coal-producers or coal-burners. In a study issued last week by the group PennEnvironment, researchers reported that only Texas and California — respectively, two and three times as populous as Pennsylvania — emit more carbon pollution from power plants than the Keystone State.

A key argument of states opposing the Clean Power Plan is that the EPA doesn't give them enough flexibility in crafting their plans. This seems curious, because the EPA has touted the plan as permitting great flexibility in cutting emissions. States can: Make power plants more efficient; embrace fuel sources that are less carbon-intensive; persuade homes and businesses to simply use less electricity; or employ some combination of the three.

Critics, however, argue that the Clean Power Plan would be more flexible if it provided ... fewer options. Huh? Well, these states claim the EPA is allowed to require pollution cuts only at the power plants themselves — not via such "outside-the-fence" initiatives as alternative-energy sources or by getting people to use less electricity.

For the Corbett administration's part, Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson Morgan Wagner explains in an email that "the energy produced or saved" through outside-the-fence projects doesn't really count as emissions reductions; instead, it "only avoids an emissions increase" (emphasis added), and therefore falls outside the Clean Air Act. So, writes Wagner, EPA's proposal is inflexible because it "creat[es] emission standards that are impossible to meet without implementing these 'outside the fence' measures."

In other words, EPA, we can meet your goal for cutting carbon emissions if only you don't make us cut carbon emissions so much. Yet two paragraphs later, Wagner acknowledges that Pennsylvania already has programs promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency, and ranks these programs among "actions taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions" in the commonwealth. So are such measures "reductions" or not?

Yes, says the EPA. In an email, the agency says the Clean Air Act requires it "to identify the 'best system of emission reduction ... adequately demonstrated' available to limit pollution." And "[t]he best and most effective system for reducing carbon pollution doesn't look just at the power plants themselves, but at the whole power system."

The Clean Power Plan has other critics in Pennsylvania. In July, the state House of Representatives approved H.B. 2354, a bill requiring the state legislature to approve the DEP's carbon-reduction plan before the Clean Power Plan-averse DEP submits it to the EPA. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Pam Snyder (D-Waynesburg), says reducing our use of coal could economically devastate districts like hers and threaten America's "energy independence." Burning coal for electricity accounts for about one-third of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions, and mostly market forces (including cheap natural gas) have already shrunken coal's market share. But Snyder says, "to eliminate something in the energy portfolio is wrong."

Critics like PennEnvironment field director Adam Garber contend that requiring the legislature to vote on the DEP's plan could delay it so much that EPA would step in and impose a "one-size-fits-all" plan on Pennsylvania. (Snyder counters that a provision in her bill would prevent that.)

At press time, H.B. 2354 was still awaiting action by a Senate committee. In any case, it won't be the last effort to privilege coal over climate.

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