West Coast states protest repeal, threaten lawsuits

Source: Debra Kahn, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, March 2, 2018

SAN FRANCISCO — Officials from California, Oregon and Washington lined up yesterday to urge U.S. EPA not to repeal the Clean Power Plan, even as they acknowledge that their efforts are likely futile.

The third of four “listening sessions” across the United States being held by EPA to take public comment on its plan to repeal President Obama’s signature climate regulation served as a demonstration of the country’s political polarization on climate change.

Officials from six California agencies, as well as Oregon and Washington’s environmental protection agencies, stressed the economic and public health benefits of the Clean Power Plan, which would have required states to cut power plant emissions an average of 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

California reached what would have been its CPP target in 2014, through a mix of policies that include a renewable portfolio standard, an emissions performance standard for long-term utility contracts and energy efficiency measures.

State officials used their testimony to warn EPA of the legal fights ahead. The federal agency, led by Scott Pruitt, a staunch critic of the regulation when he was Oklahoma’s attorney general, has argued that the rule goes beyond the scope of the Clean Air Act. Last month, EPA renewed its request that federal judges keep Clean Power Plan litigation on hold, as the agency moves forward with a plan to repeal and possibly replace the rule (Climatewire, Feb. 22).

“Honestly, we wanted to put up the strongest show, especially when they came to the West Coast, to make it clear that this is a unified position here in the West, and that we have both economic and environmental reasons why we don’t want to see the plan go away,” Mary Nichols, the chairwoman of California’s Air Resources Board, said in an interview. “We might not prevail, but we believe that we’re right, both on the law and on the science, and it’s important to make that point because if they do proceed as proposed, then we’re going to have to litigate, so it’s important to have the record out there.”

Officials and environmentalists harbored no false hopes that their testimony would sway Pruitt. “This hearing is a sham,” said Vera Pardee, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Scott Pruitt has an unalterably closed mind. He’s been dancing on the plan’s grave before the repeal process ever began.”

A representative of California’s attorney general also argued that EPA’s process is legally vulnerable, using the same phrasing. “Having unalterably closed his mind on the subject before us today, Administrator Pruitt is depriving the public of the fair process the law requires,” said Arsenio Mataka, a special assistant to state Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D). “If you ignore your responsibilities and continue down the path you are on, the attorney general will be there to fight you every inch of the way.”

Industry representatives were scarce. Of the 250 people scheduled to testify, roughly 10 were from high-emitting companies or trade associations. One of the state’s main investor-owned utilities, Southern California Edison, praised the Clean Power Plan’s flexibility in allowing the state’s carbon cap-and-trade program to be used for compliance.

“The California utilities’ desired outcome was always that the Clean Power Plan balance the need to effectively reduce emissions while allowing utilities to continue to safely deliver reliable and affordable electricity,” said Adam Smith, SCE’s climate policy manager. “We believe the Clean Power Plan advanced these goals.”

The listening session also featured heavy doses of political theater. Two hundred elementary and middle school students from Oakland beat drums and shouted at a rally at San Francisco City Hall across the street from the library, where Democratic political financier Tom Steyer, San Francisco interim Mayor Mark Farrell and others spoke in favor of action on climate and conventional air pollution.

“This was an exercise in covering your ass,” Steyer said of the hearing. “Pretending to listen.”

It wasn’t an unseasonably warm day in San Francisco, but a woman wearing a polar bear suit succumbed to exhaustion on the steps of City Hall, after attending the listening session and the rally. She was revived with help from police officers and medics.

“She had a long day fighting for people and polar bears,” said Candice Kim, climate campaign director for the Center for Biological Diversity.