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Pittsburgh Hosts Hearing on EPA's New Greenhouse Gas Proposals

As coal is poured into a waiting barge, smoke billows from a coal powered electric plant August 26, 2001 in western, PA.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

As coal is poured into a waiting barge, smoke billows from a coal powered electric plant August 26, 2001 in western, PA.

Global warming and climate change will be what everyone is talking about at a hearing today in Pittsburgh. The public forum is one of four meetings taking place across the country this week as the Environmental Protection Agency seeks input on their newly proposed rules to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s power plants. But these hearings are just the first step in a controversial move by the EPA that will likely end up being challenged in the courts. Here’s what you need to know about how it may impact Pennsylvania.

Why now?

For those seeking to stem the tide of climate change, these proposals are a long time coming. In 2007, the Supreme Court gave the EPA the green light to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Three years later, in 2010, a comprehensive climate change bill died in Congress. But Obama is committed to doing something about global warming before he leaves office in 2016. So last month the President proposed his Clean Power Plan with the goal of reducing carbon emissions from the country’s power plants by 30 percent by 2030.
The Obama Administration says tackling carbon dioxide emissions at power plants is important because these electrical generating facilities account for more than a third of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA used a complicated formula designed to take each state’s energy mix into account, along with their CO2 emission rates using 2012 as a baseline.

Pennsylvania’s CO2 Target

Pennsylvania’s CO2 emission rates from power plants in 2012 was about 106 million metric tons. The amount of energy produced from these plants was about 151 terawatt hours. So the state’s baseline emission rate based on 2012 data is 1,540 pounds/megawatt hour. Under EPA’s proposal, Pennsylvania needs to develop a plan to cut its carbon dioxide emissions to 1,052 pounds per megawatt hour in 2030. That comes out to a 32 percent reduction. Some states are lower and some are higher.
The EPA says it wants to be as flexible as possible, giving the states as many options as it can to meet that target by 2030. State options are divided into what the Agency calls four separate “building blocks.” These include making fossil fuel plants more efficient, replacing coal plants with lower carbon dioxide emitting natural gas, adding renewables and nuclear power, and energy conservation by consumers.
It’s up to the Department of Environmental Protection to create a plan. The DEP put out a white paper before the EPA’s proposals were announced, but would not answer questions about it. The DEP is expected to testify at the hearing on Thursday. On Wednesday, Governor Tom Corbett attended a rally against the EPA’s plan, claiming it will kill jobs in the state’s coal mines.
“In Pennsylvania, nearly 63,000 men and women work in jobs supported by the coal industry,” Corbett said. “Anything that seeks to or has the effect of shutting down coal-fired power plants is an assault on Pennsylvania jobs, consumers, and those citizens who rely upon affordable, abundant domestic energy.
Pennsylvania is in a unique position because it has such a diverse energy portfolio and produces more than its residents use. The breakdown of energy production in Pennsylvania still favors coal at 39 percent, but that could change under these rules because coal is one of the greatest emitters of CO2. Nuclear energy, which does not emit carbon dioxide, contributes about 33 percent to the state’s energy mix.  Natural gas, which emits less carbon dioxide than coal, and is cheaper than nuclear, makes up about 24 percent of electricity production. Carbon-free renewables account for about 2 percent.

Winners and Losers

So if coal is the loser in these proposals, natural gas could be the winner. With state officials caught between these two influential fossil fuel industries – coal and natural gas – environmentalists fear the DEP will simply choose natural gas over the other two building blocks; improving energy efficiency or investments in alternative energy.
Joe Minott is the executive director of the Clean Air Council.
“Clearly Pennsylvania is going to look after coal,” says Minott. “They’re going to look after natural gas. But that doesn’t mean they have to do that at the expense of promoting energy efficiency and alternative energy. But I suspect that they’re going to do whatever they can to protect the fossil fuel industry.”
One dangerous greenhouse gas that the EPA is not proposing to regulate, at least for now, is methane. Methane has much more powerful warming effects but does not survive in the atmosphere as long as CO2. It takes about 12 years for it to break down into CO2 and H2O, while CO2 itself remains in the atmosphere for decades. Some are pushing for methane emissions to get more attention from regulators.

Questioning Authority

While states are left to carve out their own path toward carbon dioxide reductions, powerful national interests are opposing the EPA’s plan.
Scott Segal, executive director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, says the EPA is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole by using the Clean Air Act to combat climate change.
“The EPA is attempting to do what has never been done under the 40 years of precedent under the Clean Air Act,” said Segal.
Segal represents utilities that rely heavily on coal to produce their electricity. Segal says despite the EPA’s claim, the plan is not flexible. He says the way the Agency structured the building blocks may hamstring states into getting rid of coal plants. And he says the loss of coal plants would threaten the reliability of the electrical grid during severe cold or severe hot weather.
“Power needs to be dispatched to consumers based on whatever is cheapest,” said Segal. “My rates have to be reasonable and my rates have to be just. That’s the law. Well the agency in one fell swoop is trying to change that and saying they want us to dispatch electricity by order of carbon. There is no mechanism to do that. It’s just a breathtaking assertion of authority.”
The authority Segal questions comes from a little used section of the Clean Air Act known as 111d. This part of the Act is basically a catch-all that grants EPA the authority to set standards on existing sources of air pollutants that don’t come under any other air quality standard.
The Clean Air Act was originally written to regulate pollutants that have immediate, localized public health impacts. Things like smog or particulate matter. Things that cause childhood asthma, or lung cancer. Now the EPA is using a segment of the Clean Air Act to regulate the much more global threat of climate change. The hearings this week are just the start to what may turn out to be protracted legal battles over the rules and EPA’s authority.

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