EPA’s McCabe hints at easing CO2 ‘interim’ goals, nuclear treatment

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) might modify the much-debated 2020 “interim” targets under the proposed Clean Power Plan, a top EPA official suggested during questioning by a Senate committee on Feb. 11.

EPA Acting Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation Janet McCabe appeared before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. McCabe’s boss, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has also predicted changes when the final rule comes out.

In June of last year, EPA laid out its proposal to cut power sector carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions 30% by 2030. The rule proposal targets existing power plants. A separate proposal from January 2014 would target new coal-fired plants for CO2 control.

There has been much concern voiced about the Clean Power Plan’s interim CO2 reduction targets set for 2020. Some have called this the “2020 cliff.” McCabe noted there has been “a lot of anxiety is about meeting an interim goal in that time period.” That’s something EPA is “looking very closely at,” McCabe said. Adequate planning time is important to maintaining electric reliability, McCabe said.  

In a familiar refrain during the hearing, McCabe said EPA is sorting through millions of comments that it has received. EPA hopes to address any factual errors and workability issues.

“We appreciate there are complexities. … The comments that we receive may well result in adjustments to an EPA rule … to the extent that the adjustments are appropriate … so the rule can work right,” McCabe said.

Likewise, McCabe said EPA has received “a lot of comments” on how the proposal treats nuclear plants currently under construction. EPA is looking at the nuclear issue, McCabe said.

“This rule is not an energy plan,” McCabe said. Every state has a different generation mix and every state has the potential to cut CO2, McCabe said.

GOP critics note state-specific issues, FutureGen 2

“Flexibility is great. But if the only way [we can comply] is to shut down our power plants then we have no flexibility at all,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).

EPA is supposed to consider the proposed “useful life” of coal-fired power plants. But Wicker said he does not believe EPA has done so.

The Clean Power Plan “does not require any particular plant to take any particular action,” McCabe said. “We expect and assume” that coal plants will continue to be a major part, about 30%, of the nation’s power generation in 2030, she added.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said EPA has previously low-balled its estimates of coal plant retirements under the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS).

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) pointed to the Energy Department’s recent cancellation of the FutureGen 2.0 carbon control project. Then the EPA CO2 plan seems to push technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS) for future coal generation. It seems that the private sector is being required to build CCS, “when the federal government won’t,” Barrasso said. McCabe replied that the Clean Power Plan does not require CCS. That is somewhat misleading, since the proposed rules for new coal-fired plants does require CCS.

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said his home state of South Dakota will see the operating hours of the Otter Tail Power (NASDAQ:OTTR) Big Stone coal plant cut by more than half under the EPA proposal. In addition, the only gas-fired combined-cycle plant in South Dakota, Basin Electric Power Cooperative’s Deer Creek facility, is located in a different regional transmission organization than Big Stone, Rounds said.

“We are talking about doing through regulation what we have not been able to do through legislation,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who chairs the committee.  

Carbon programs have been rejected by Congress several times, Inhofe said. The chairman added that even liberal legal scholars like Laurence Tribe have publicly questioned the constitutionality of the EPA plan.

Coastal Democrats say climate impacts are already happening

The Clean Power Plan found its defenders in a number of Senate Democrats representing coastal states.

After various GOP members brought up CO2 emissions by China, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) cautioned that little in the way of CO2 reductions would occur if all countries wait for other nations to take the first step. Merkley said the United States continues to have the largest CO2 footprint “per capita” in the world.

The EPA actions have put the United States in a “leadership position” on climate change. Merkley said that a recent Obama administration agreement sparked China to make a major commitment to renewable energy over the next 15 years.

GOP Senators tended to dismiss the China deal, saying that China will continue to emit more CO2 for a number of years while the United States commits to steep reductions that might harm the U.S. economy.

Climate change is already harming fishing, farming and other aspects of life in the Pacific Northwest. It is not just “some computer model,” Merkley said.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said his state is already suffering from the ill effects of climate change. Whitehouse said that the fossil fuel industry has often cried wolf on EPA regulations in the past.

During the hearing, McCabe said EPA is drafting a federal implementation plan for states that fail to draft their own state implementation plan. EPA much prefers that states make their own plans, however, she added.

Inhofe was skeptical that EPA could do much to enforce a federal plan. EPA can’t take away a state’s highway funds for non-compliance, he said.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said everybody wants clean air and water. “But I also think jobs are important” and affordable energy as well as “the rule of law and the Constitution.”

Sullivan said 32 states have raised legal questions and the plan and 12 have already sued EPA. Sullivan asked McCabe: “Do you think this proposal dramatically expands your authority?”

“I do not,” McCabe said. The EPA official said authority comes from the existing Clean Air Act.

About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at wayneb@pennwell.com.