EPA’s Regan Pledges ‘Aggressive Approach’ For Power Sector GHG Rules

Source: By Dawn Reeves, Inside EPA • Posted: Tuesday, August 31, 2021

EPA Administrator Michael Regan says his agency is taking a “fresh look” at options for regulating greenhouse gases from both new and existing power plants, arguing that a forthcoming proposal would include lessons learned from defunct rules issued by the past two administrations while aiming for a “very aggressive approach.”

Regan offered new details on the highly anticipated power sector rules during Aug. 30 remarks as part of a wide-ranging event hosted by think tank Resources for the Future (RFF), though he did not include a timeline for when to expect a proposal.

EPA’s most recent Unified Agenda listed the existing source rule as a “long-term” action, signaling it is unlikely to be issued until at least the middle of 2022.

At the event, RFF President Richard Newell noted that the Biden EPA has moved quickly on GHG rules for other sectors, issuing proposed rules in the first months of the administration for light-duty vehicles and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

The agency is also expected to release stringent methane limits for the oil and gas sector as soon as next month.

Newell asked Regan how EPA is “currently thinking about regulating power sector emissions under the Clean Air Act,” given prior debate on the limits of EPA’s authority and court losses that included a Supreme Court stay of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan (CPP) and this January’s appeals court vacatur of the Trump administration’s Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule.

In response, Regan called the power sector “equally important” for limiting GHGs as the other sectors and noted that EPA is “obligated under the Clean Air Act to put in place emission guidelines,” especially in the wake of the ACE vacatur. The same ruling also held that the Trump EPA’s repeal of the CPP was unlawful, though the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit delayed putting that portion of its decision in place because the Biden EPA does not want to revive the CPP.

EPA’s development of power sector climate rules is occurring in a much different dynamic than the CPP, however. Democrats in Congress are currently developing what they hope will be major climate mitigation policies for the power sector — including a Clean Electricity Payments Program and a broad extension of clean power tax credits — that would be passed via streamlined budget “reconciliation” procedures that can avoid a Senate filibuster.

Other power sector-related GHG policies are also included in separate bipartisan infrastructure legislation that has passed the Senate, including incentives to continue operating existing nuclear plants and provisions to deploy new transmission, which is seen as crucial for integrating high levels of renewables.

All of that Hill action will likely allow the Biden EPA to take longer to develop its power sector regulations, and it could mean that EPA is not forced to write a rule based on creative legal interpretations to achieve greater stringency.

The CPP, by contrast, was seen as the Obama administration’s primary power sector climate policy, with EPA officials trying to compensate for the failure of comprehensive climate legislation in 2010.

The Obama administration’s GHG rule for new power plants remains in effect, though experts say it has little on-the-ground effect because no new coal plants are being planned in the U.S. Some environmental groups have been pressing EPA to consider imposing targets based on carbon capture and storage technology for new natural gas-fired plants.

‘Learned A Lot’

At the RFF event, Regan pledged to build on lessons learned from the CPP and ACE and engage with a broad range of interested parties. But he stopped short of saying whether the rule will base targets on actions taken “beyond the fenceline” of a regulated plant, as the CPP did, or be limited to emissions cuts that can be achieved at a plant, as ACE did.

“We learned a lot from the CPP and saw what didn’t work with the ACE rule,” he said, adding he is “working with EPA staff to determine what next steps are” and that the policy will be informed by prior experience and be guided by science, the law and the urgent need to address climate change.

He also noted that markets are already helping by pushing for clean energy and that there is “new, advanced technology that we can be thoughtful about. I can feel really good that as we look at both traditional air pollution and carbon from the power sector that we can design a roadmap that will really engage stakeholders and get those reductions we are all looking for.”

He added that the nation “can’t regulate our way out of” climate impacts and that investments in technologies will play a key role. He has spent time with “sister agencies” including the Departments of Energy and Commerce to discuss “how our regulations complement these various investments.” Rules can bring economic pressure to deploy low-carbon technology, though they can be complemented by economic incentives, he said.

Finally, Regan said EPA will also be looking to issue climate rules for various industrial sectors, noting the agency is taking “one bite at a time but looking at the cumulative effect” of its rulemaking authority, and is taking a “multi-media, multi-operative” role.

Regan also defended the agency’s environmental justice (EJ) work as having “gone well beyond rhetoric,” citing President Joe Biden’s leadership in the bipartisan infrastructure bill seeking House approval, including its funding to improve clean water infrastructure.

Nearly six months in, Regan touted some early successes including the agency’s recent proposal to strengthen GHG limits for light-duty vehicles and to re-establish California’s authority to enforce vehicle GHG standards, as well the agency’s proposal to cut HFC use by 85 percent over 15 years.

He also mentioned efforts to improve agency staff morale. “I’m confident that we will revive the agency to where it once was.”

Finally, he mentioned the agency’s traditional roles including cleaning up brownfields and Superfund sites while rebuilding trust with EJ and tribal communities. — Dawn Reeves (dreeves@iwpnews.com)