House Republicans fill McCarthy’s in-box with criticism of power plant rule

Source: Jean Chemnick, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, March 13, 2014

House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans yesterday intensified their demand for more information about the basis for U.S. EPA’s proposed mandate that all future coal-fired power plants use partial carbon capture and storage to limit heat-trapping emissions.In a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, six GOP committee leaders again charged that September’s new power plant proposal for carbon may overstep EPA’s statutory authority. They asked for more details about how the agency arrived at its decision that partial CCS is “the best system of emissions reduction … adequately demonstrated” for new coal plants and especially about the role three Energy Department-funded CCS projects played in that decision.”In the proposed rule, EPA makes a number of references to three government-funded [CCS] power plant projects under the Department of Energy’s Clean Coal Power Initiative, including one project under construction and two planned projects,” the Republicans noted, referring to Southern Co.’s Kemper plant in Mississippi, the Texas Clean Energy Project and the Hydrogen Energy California Project — all of which figured in EPA’s proposal.

The Republicans — who included committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) — pointed out in another letter to McCarthy in November that the Energy Policy Act of 2005 prohibited government-funded projects from forming the basis of air quality rulemakings. They have said EPA has not answered the letter.

Yesterday’s letter asked EPA to hand over documents showing the process that led to the proposed rule, starting with a December 2010 settlement agreement with environmental plaintiffs.

The new power plant proposal remains open for public comment until May 9. In February, the agency released a supplementary document seeking to settle the question of whether the rule is consistent with the 2005 energy law’s language prohibiting federally backed projects from forming the basis of a rule. The agency argued in the document — which is also open for public comment — that the three plants in question were only part of its justification for the rule. Officials said it was also based on the use of CCS components by other industries including natural gas processing facilities, scientific and engineering research, and the SaskPower Boundary Dam CCS project in Canada.

The Energy and Commerce Republicans were cheered yesterday by industry groups that have lobbied hard against the proposal. They argue that EPA must refrain from requiring the use of CCS until it has reached a threshold of use within the power sector.

“The agency has been singularly focused on executing the administration’s climate mission using a decision-making process devoid of science, common sense, and the realization of the harm that it would bring to families across the nation and to our economy,” charged Laura Sheehan of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.

“Mandating the use of CCS — which has never been demonstrated on a commercial scale power plant — will only serve to reduce the nation’s diverse energy mix,” said the Partnership for a Better Energy Future, a joint campaign by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers to defeat the rule.

EPA acting air chief Janet McCabe said yesterday in testimony before another House committee that EPA is charged by the Clean Air Act to set emissions standards that are technology-forcing or require a regulated industry to take steps to ratchet down emissions that it would not otherwise take. But she told two Science, Space and Technology subcommittees that CCS technology is at a stage of development where it can help coal-fired power plants meet the proposed 1,100-pound-per-megawatt-hour standard (E&ENews PM, March 12).

“We believe that when you look across all the information and data that’s available, that there is adequate and robust data showing that the various components that we based that standard on are in use, have been in use and will be ready,” she said.

David Hawkins, director of the climate center at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said at the same hearing that the Clean Air Act does not require EPA to confine its rulemakings to technology that is commercially available. The law sets a requirement that the agency tap “adequately demonstrated” technology to meet rules.

In the case of CCS, he said, the technology is commercially available — there are vendors that sell its components.

“There just isn’t commercial use, because there’s no reason for the power plant operators to use it,” he said, adding that EPA’s rule would create that trigger.

McCarthy received a lot of mail from the House yesterday about the proposed power plant rule. The House GOP caucus’ 11 medical doctors sent another letter questioning the assumptions EPA makes in the proposal about the health benefits of limiting greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. power sector. They note that climate change is a global environmental problem and suggest that by limiting emissions from one sector within the United States, EPA would do little to address contributions to smog, dangerous heat and other health risks posed by global greenhouse gas emissions.

“In a matter of days, a molecule of carbon dioxide emitted in China or Germany is literally around the world,” they said. “And far from following the lead of the United States in imposing carbon regulations of similar scope as those under discussion at your agency, we fear that our principal trade competitors are likely to take advantage of increased energy and manufacturing costs in this country and expand their industrial base.”

China has taken steps in recent weeks to prioritize air pollution policies over carbon reduction policies. The world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter angered environmentalists by moving ahead with plans to gasify coal — a bid to curb smog that will contribute greatly to greenhouse gas emissions (Climatewire, March 12). And support for a carbon tax appears to be dwindling.

With China continuing to add new fossil fuels-based generation at a steady clip, experts say the best chance of bending the curve downward on emissions is international development of CCS.