Ep. 24: A Clean Power Plan Postmortem
On Tuesday, October 10, the Environmental Protection Agency made it official. Administrator Scott Pruitt signed the paperwork to revoke the Clean Power Plan. But what is the case for repeal? And what does replace look like?
Pruitt was one of more than two dozen attorney generals who sued the EPA to stop it; they argued that the EPA was overstepping its authority in its attempt to lower the country’s greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
In this episode of Trump on Earth, we talk to Jeff Holmstead, who opposed the Clean Power Plan and hear why he agreed with Scott Pruitt that the rule was illegal. Holmstead has worked on environmental issues for previous Republican administrations, including a stint as Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation at the EPA under George W. Bush, and in the White House staff of George H.W. Bush. He is a lobbyist for energy companies, utilities and oil and gas businesses for Bracewell, LLP.
So why does he think the Clean Power Plan was illegal? Because of how it was written, he said.
“What [the Clean Air Act] allows EPA to do is to decide what kinds of technology controls, or operational methods, can be used to reduce emissions at a particular plant when that plant is operating. So it's basically designed to make sure that individual plants are well controlled.... Instead of trying to control the emissions of individual plants, [the Obama administration] came up with a very complicated scheme that was designed, in essence, to take electricity generation away from coal-fired power plants and just transfer that over to renewable wind and solar plants. And they had a lot of policy reasons for doing that, but the big problem is the statute doesn't give them that authority.”
The Obama administration under Gina McCarthy did think this was legal. They argued that EPA doesn’t have to confine itself to ‘inside the fenceline’ measures, but could regulate the electric system as a whole. If you can do something outside of the factory that makes that factory cleaner, they argued, that should be allowed under the Clean Air Act.
The problem for the coal industry and conservatives, according to Holmstead, was that the way the Clean Power Plan was set up, it created conditions where some coal-fired power plants would have to close. In Holmstead’s much narrower interpretation of the Clean Air Act, EPA can only make each coal plant use the best system of controls--while still being able to operate. Holmstead says he’s not alone in his interpretation.
“There's 27 states and most importantly the Supreme Court...they did for the first time in history actually step in and say this regulation needs to be put on hold. So this regulation even though it was issued several years ago now has never gone into effect because the Supreme Court put it on hold.”
What does a replacement Clean Power Plan look like? It won’t have carbon capture technology, which takes carbon dioxide out of fossil fuel emissions, because it’s too expensive for power companies to run economically. Holmstead argues that the likeliest replacement plan will have much more modest requirements--like requiring coal plants to increase their efficiency. But that won’t bring about the kinds of carbon reductions that closing coal plants will. So where does that leave the effort to control greenhouse gases? Holmstead says although Congress could adopt new laws, what is really needed is new technology.
“The reason we have greenhouse gas emissions not only in the United States but around the world, is the use of fossil fuels has dramatically changed the way that we live. And the reason why carbon dioxide emissions continue to go up is because, by far the least expensive way to provide electricity, in most of the world is coal....Until they have a cost effective way to provide electricity to those people that gives affordable, reliable electricity that at least is competitive with coal, we’re not going to solve the problem."
Mentioned in the episode:
This episode was hosted by Reid Frazier. Follow him on twitter. Trump on Earth is produced by The Allegheny Front, a Pittsburgh-based environmental reporting project, and Point Park University's Environmental Journalism program.
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