Calif. air chief Nichols says state poised to stay on track with rule timeline

Source: By Monica Trauzzi, E&E • Posted: Thursday, February 18, 2016

How are state air agencies proceeding with planning following last week’s Supreme Court stay of the Clean Power Plan? During today’s OnPoint, Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, explains how her state plans to not only stay the course with its compliance planning, but also stay on the timeline prescribed by U.S. EPA in its rule. Nichols also discusses California’s plans to work with other states on compliance.

Click here to watch today’s OnPoint.

Monica Trauzzi: Hello, and welcome to OnPoint. I’m Monica Trauzzi. With me today is Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board and a distinguished visiting professor at Georgetown University Law. Chairwoman Nichols, thank you for joining me again.

Mary Nichols: It’s a pleasure.

Monica Trauzzi: Chairwoman, as the dust settles from the Supreme Court’s surprising decision to stay the Clean Power Plan pending litigation, what conversations are you having with other state air agencies about next steps?

Mary Nichols: Well, first of all, of course, we’re part of a larger group of states that are all actively moving forward on our own with ways of pricing carbon and limiting emissions from our electricity sector. So, between ourselves and the RGGI states and others who have indicated desire to move with us. We have a large group and we are all in a position where we will continue developing our plans regardless of the stay decision that just came down from the Supreme Court.

Obviously, we were surprised and disappointed — as were many other people — by the decision, but as we look at where we are and what we need to do, first of all, we still believe very strongly that EPA will prevail, that the Clean Power Plan will be upheld at the end of the day, so it would be foolish to slack off in our efforts to develop approvable plans right now. But even if we were not so convinced, as we are, I think we feel that the work that we’re doing now on reducing emissions and bringing our electricity systems into the 21st century and beyond our investments in renewable energy and in efficiency are things that we would be doing for climate purposes and for economic purposes as well.

Monica Trauzzi: So then California will continue to move forward with the power plan itself or simply the path that your state is already on in terms of clean energy and emissions reduction?

Mary Nichols: Well, we were already planning to submit our cap and trade program as our demonstration of compliance with the Clean Power Plan. There were other elements that we would have to — and still do have to — complete in order to be fully approvable under the final EPA regulation. So it’s not just a matter of sending something that’s already been printed up and saying, “Here it is,” but we were well on the path to doing that. And one of our objectives was to get our plan in on time, if not early, as a way of showing other states that this is something that could be done and further inviting them to join with us in this effort, and so that effort will continue regardless.

Monica Trauzzi: And you’ll try to stay on that timeline that was established by EPA?

Mary Nichols: Well, there’s no reason for us to delay. The timeline is certainly — to the first milestone, the initial submittal, is challenging for any bureaucracy, including mine, but we think we can do it, and we want to act on that assumption because it’s part of our larger effort to work with other states and other regions of the world that are looking to California to demonstrate leadership on these issues.

Monica Trauzzi: And how many states do you believe will follow suit and follow the power plan prescription?

Mary Nichols: Well, the original coalition of states that intervened in the litigation in behalf of EPA have pretty much all indicated their plan to stay on this path. There are several other states that we’re talking to who I’m not at liberty to quote as having said that they’re going to hedge their bets by continuing the work that they’re doing, even in cases where they actually are on the side of opposition. Even when they’re opposing the plan, they’re still making a prudent bet that the Clean Power Plan will be upheld.

Monica Trauzzi: But many states will opt to stop work on the power plan. Ultimately, will that create an even more fragmented patchwork of action versus inaction in the U.S.?

Mary Nichols: Well, we already knew that there were a number of states that were going to do everything they could to delay, and they — states will continue to delay, so I’m not sure that this adds anything other than more of an argument on their side as to why they’re doing it, but at the end of the day, my experience with EPA and large national rulemakings is that there’s always litigation, there’s always some delay, there’s always a period of regrouping, and maybe it works, to some degree, to the benefit of those who were laggards, but in general, I think it works more to the benefit of those states that decide to be leaders in this area because they’ve already got the experience and they’ve got the ability to send messages to industries that might be looking at investment, that this is a place that has its act together.

Monica Trauzzi: And utilities continue to want certainty. Do you think that naturally evolving business models towards cleaner energy, towards more cost-effective forms of energy that are ultimately cleaner, do you think that that will ultimately drive the U.S. in the direction that the Clean Power Plan was going in, but just perhaps at a slower pace?

Mary Nichols: Yeah, I would probably say it in the opposite way, which is that the Clean Power Plan was assisting a movement that was already underway by the time the plan came out. So the question is: “Why does it matter?” Well, it still matters both from a backstop perspective as a way of pushing along those states that were not going to move until they absolutely had to — unfortunately, they do require rules — and I think from the perspective of industry — and the utility industry said this: They would like a level playing field.

So the rule is still very important to us. The plan is important to us. It’s clearly a basis for the entire country being able to assert its ability to comply with the Paris agreement. It’s something that the administration has put a tremendous amount of effort, and I think, has some of the most sophisticated technical work in it that has ever been done at EPA. It’s really an impressive program, and so it deserves to be honored and to be complied with, but the reality is, as you say, that for most of the utilities in states that are growing or that are looking towards their own futures, this is part of a path that they already knew that they were on, and so, at worst, the decision is adding an extra element of confusion and encouragement to those who are going to drag their feet every step of the way.

Monica Trauzzi: What are the impacts of the stay decision on the president’s climate legacy?

Mary Nichols: I think the president’s climate legacy will stand. I think it will be upheld. I think not only will it be validated as, I think, almost every major Clean Air Act decision has been in recent year after a period of uncertainty and questioning of whether it could possibly really mean what it says. It’s the Clean Air Act that we come back to time after time, so this president used that act; he used it in a courageous and constructive way, but he’s not the first person to recognize, as the Supreme Court itself has told us, that greenhouse gases are a form of air pollution, and the Clean Air Act actually requires them to be mitigated. So he’s doing something which is, I think, not just well-founded, but in my opinion, required by the law.

Monica Trauzzi: Because the court has taken such an unusual step in granting the stay, many are suggesting that the rule is now on track to be overturned. How should EPA be planning for next steps right now?

Mary Nichols: I hope EPA is planning to continue working on the rule because, while it is certainly not capable of being enforced through administrative or judicial action, it’s still the law, and there’s a lot of work that EPA could be doing — and hopefully will be doing — with the states, with industries to work out details to explain the rule to people, to answer questions and develop additional guidance. All of those things need to be kept on track.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. We’ll end it right there. Thank you. Thank you for your thoughts and time. Thanks for coming on the show again.

Mary Nichols: Thank you. A pleasure.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We’ll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]

Click here to watch today’s OnPoint.