Nebraska will challenge the EPA emissions rule, attorney general says

Source: By Cody Winchester and Joseph Morton / World-Herald staff writers • Posted: Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Nebraska and Iowa would need to cut carbon emissions more aggressively than previously expected under a new White House plan for U.S. power plants, and Nebraska already is promising a court fight.

Attorney General Doug Peterson said his state will join others in challenging Environmental Protection Agency rules that aim to cut carbon emissions in the power sector by 32 percent. An earlier version called for a 30 percent reduction.

“Nebraska will challenge the final rule and EPA’s legal authority to adopt the regulations,” Peterson said. “Left unchecked, this inappropriate jurisdictional overreach of the federal government will have serious consequences by driving electrical costs up for all Nebraskans across our state.”

Midlands utilities, regulators and elected officials are still reviewing the details of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which was unveiled Monday.

Each state has a different target. Nebraska’s goal is to reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent between 2012 and 2030. Iowa’s goal is a 42 percent reduction.

“We think these goals are realistic for all the states,” said Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Air and Radiation, in a conference call with reporters.

But opponents warned that the new rule would hurt the economy and said they will ask courts to put it on hold until their legal challenges are resolved. Many Republican governors have said their states simply won’t comply.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said he was worried about the plan’s cost.

“My administration will be examining these impacts before making a decision about proceeding with any potential state plan for Nebraska,” he said in a statement, adding that the state already has taken steps to use more renewable energy.

The regulations are the first national standards regulating carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas linked to climate change. At a White House event to unveil the final rules, President Barack Obama said limiting carbon emissions is the “the single most important step” America has ever taken to fight climate change.

“There is such a thing as being too late when it comes to climate change,” said Obama, who was flanked by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and parents of asthma patients.

States can develop their own implementation plans or work with neighboring states on a regional plan. They can increase their use of renewable energy, beef up demand-side management programs or use other strategies to hit their target.

Barring a successful court challenge, implementation plans will be due by September 2016 — although states that need more time can request an extension of up to two years. States that don’t develop their own plans will have to follow a federal version.

States may have to work a little harder to hit their goals under the final plan. Nebraska’s target for 2030 is about 12 percent lower than last year’s preliminary proposal. Iowa’s goal is about 1 percent lower.

If Nebraska does develop its own plan, the state Department of Environmental Quality would take the lead. The process would include input from the public and from the utility industry “to develop a plan that fits Nebraska’s needs,” agency spokesman Brian McManus said.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources spokesman Kevin Baskins said state officials are meeting tomorrow to review the new rules.

Ken Winston, an advocate with the Nebraska chapter of the Sierra Club, said the new regulations are a “tremendous opportunity” to cut pollution and tap the state’s wind and solar resources.

“We know the power of clean energy because clean energy is already taking off in Nebraska,” Winston said in a statement. “Omaha and Lincoln have shown the way by their commitment to ramp up renewable energy significantly by 2016.”

Mike Jones, a spokesman for the Omaha Public Power District, said district officials need more time to review the rules to understand their impact. Last year, the OPPD board approved a long-term generation plan that phases out some coal-fired power, relying more on renewable energy and greater efforts to reduce demand.

Officials at the Nebraska Public Power District and MidAmerican Energy said Monday they, too, are still reviewing the new rules.

Even so, MidAmerican spokeswoman Ashton Newman said, the company doesn’t anticipate that compliance costs will mean higher rates because the company already is reducing carbon emissions and relying more on clean power sources.

The new rules elicited bipartisan concerns from Nebraska and Iowa lawmakers, however.

“There is no doubt that climate change is a real, man-made environmental problem,” said Rep. Brad Ashford, D-Neb. “However, we must ensure a smooth transition towards cleaner fuel sources. I have real concerns that this new plan will adversely impact consumer prices and threaten access to electricity especially for those Nebraskans who can least afford it, low-income families working hard to make ends meet.”

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., said he supports a shift toward “a more diverse and sustainable energy portfolio — but this should be done in a responsible manner without unnecessary political fights.”

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said the new power plant rules represent an overreach of the EPA’s authority and will take a particularly heavy toll on a public power state like Nebraska. She predicted the rules will effectively shut down many existing coal-fired power plants and increase power bills for families and businesses.

Fischer, a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee that has oversight of the EPA, is promoting legislation aimed at pulling back on EPA efforts.

In an interview with The World-Herald, Fischer noted that Democrats were unable to get proposals aimed at tackling carbon pollution through Congress even when they controlled both the House and Senate.

“It’s pretty clear that the people of this country don’t support it,” Fischer said. “It’s just another step by the president in trying to rule by his pen.”

Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., described the administration plan as “burdensome top-down regulations” that would kill jobs and increase the cost of energy in Nebraska.”

A consensus among scientists that climate change is real and driven by humans has not translated into political consensus.

All four Iowa and Nebraska senators earlier this year opposed an amendment that stated in part that “human activity contributes to climate change.”

Fischer demurred Monday when asked if she thinks climate change is real and whether it’s fueled by manmade activities.

“I just don’t get into that whole discussion on it,” she said.

Fischer said the Senate should be working on policies that help families and promote a balanced energy portfolio.

“That would be so much more helpful than always trying to bash the other side and one-up the other side,” she said.

Fischer said that as a state lawmaker she supported legislation aimed at fostering more private investment in wind energy in Nebraska.

“That’s the way we need to approach things, and it’s not by having an edict come down from the president,” Fischer said.

“Today, the administration is doing by regulation what even a Democrat-controlled Congress rejected just a few years ago,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb. “Like most Nebraskans who want both affordable energy and environmental stewardship, I am disappointed that the administration has acted like a super-legislature, and I will continue to work toward real energy solutions in an open and accountable process.”

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, cautioned against the plan’s potential to increase prices and hurt jobs. “The Obama Administration has essentially enacted a national energy policy that will most likely increase electricity prices across the country and cost jobs,” she said. “Americans should have a voice in this process through an open and transparent conversation in Congress and within our local communities. This burdensome federal mandate is likely to increase household costs for folks across the country, hurt jobs and result in a loss of economic opportunity.”

Shipping and other related industries could be affected by the new regulations. Coal is an important cargo for two major Nebraska businesses, Omaha’s Union Pacific Railroad and BNSF Railway.

Last year, BNSF hauled 2.2 million carloads of coal, up 1.6 percent from a year earlier. BNSF, employer of 5,000 Nebraskans, hauled about 10 percent less coal in the second quarter of this year compared to a year earlier.

Union Pacific’s second-quarter coal volume fell 26 percent, due to both lower demand and flooding in some of the areas in which it hauls the commodity. The company, employer of 8,000 Nebraskans, said last month that 32 percent of electricity generation during the second quarter relied on burning coal, down from 39 percent a year earlier.

BNSF Railway declined to comment about new EPA rule. Union Pacific didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

MidAmerican Energy Co. is a subsidiary of MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., a division of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., which also owns BNSF Railway and The Omaha World-Herald Co.