By Lissa Lynch and David Doniger, Natural Resources Defense Council
NRDC urged EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt this week to reverse course on his reckless plans to dismantle the Clean Power Plan and replace it with weak limits on power plant carbon pollution.
It’s no secret that NRDC supports the Clean Power Plan—a critical step to reduce the nearly two billion tons of carbon pollution from our nation’s power plants that are driving dangerous climate change. And it’s no surprise that NRDC opposes Administrator Pruitt’s ongoing efforts to do away with the CPP’s climate and public health protections.
Over the last several years, we’ve made the case over and over that EPA has a legal obligation under the Clean Air Act to cut carbon pollution from the nation’s 1,000 fossil fuel-fired power plants and that the Clean Power Plan is well within EPA’s Clean Air Act authority. We made that case once more in our comments on Administrator Pruitt’s “Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” seeking input on possible Clean Power Plan replacements.
Power plants are the nation’s largest industrial source of the carbon pollution that drives climate change, imperiling the health and welfare of all Americans, and especially the most vulnerable communities. We’re already feeling major impacts of climate change across the country: wildfires raged last year across the western states, four powerful hurricanes pummeled the east and gulf coasts, and extreme heat set records in thousands of communities. These and other harmful effects of a changing climate are growing increasingly severe, and are disproportionately affecting children, the elderly, communities of color, low-income communities, and indigenous populations both in the United States and worldwide.
It doesn’t stop at our borders and it doesn’t stop in winter. As we submitted our comments this week it was colder in Rome (snowing and below freezing) than at the North Pole (50 degrees above normal and unprecedented ice melting). Meanwhile, Administrator Pruitt muses in TV interviews about whether a climate change “necessarily is a bad thing” or whether “we really know what the ideal surface temperature should be in the year 2100.”
It’s clear that we need to take action now to dramatically reduce climate-changing pollution, including emissions of carbon pollution from the power sector. Instead, Pruitt has proposed outright repeal of the Clean Power Plan, and issued this Advance Notice to consider possible replacements. All indications are that he plans a do-nothing rule that will not meet his Clean Air Act obligations to sharply cut carbon pollution in line with what the industry is already demonstrating is readily achievable.
Pruitt’s Advance Notice, like the repeal proposal, is premised on the faulty legal theory that the “best system of emission reduction,” the key phrase in Clean Air Act section 111, can only include emission reduction measures physically implemented at a coal plant. As we argue in our comments, this narrow interpretation is not compelled by the Clean Air Act nor even a reasonable construction of the statutory language. The Administrator’s proposals disregard the wide variety of means power plants already use to reduce their carbon pollution, and they arbitrarily exclude common sense regulatory approaches that EPA has employed in setting many current standards.
Even if this so-called “inside-the-fenceline” interpretation were justified, the Advance Notice suggests only one strategy: minor “tune-ups” in power plant efficiency by making slight improvements in the heat rate, or combustion efficiency, of coal-fired power plants.
But there are numerous other on-site measures that EPA cannot simply ignore, including co-firing the plant with a mix of natural gas and coal, converting to 100 percent natural gas, adding carbon capture and sequestration technology, and more. In any proposed replacement rule, EPA must analyze the emission reductions that can be achieved by the full suite of such measures. In that analysis EPA must take into account current energy market conditions and updated costs of emission reduction techniques—including rapidly declining costs of cleaner sources of energy. And, EPA must take into account—as it did when establishing the Clean Power Plan—the overwhelming health and climate-protection benefits of cutting these plants’ emissions of carbon dioxide and other dangerous air pollutants.
If Administrator Pruitt is going to pursue the repeal and replacement of the Clean Power Plan, EPA needs to much more analysis of the variety of measures that power plants can—and already do—use to reduce their carbon pollution. If the Agency does that analysis in good faith, they’ll find that the Clean Power Plan approach remains the best system of emission reduction for the power sector. And they’ll also find that the Clean Power Plan’s targets could be strengthened considerably given the power industry’s recent progress in reducing emissions by shifting to lower-emitting energy sources.
EPA has a legal obligation to guard public health and the environment against the urgent hazards of climate change and deadly air pollution. NRDC will continue to hold Administrator Pruitt accountable and ensure that he does not abandon his Clean Air Act duty to protect our health, our safety, and our future.