The Obama administration is trying to build support for a key element of its climate-change plan with appeals to everyone from trout fishermen to fans of Al Roker on the Weather Channel.
The push to promote the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to curb carbon dioxide from power plants stands in contrast to the low-key approach of President Barack Obama’s first term, when it downplayed the hazards and trumpeted an “all of the above” energy policy.
“It’s very important to get out ahead of the issue, because very strident things are said about the EPA” by opponents, said William Reilly, who was administrator of the agency under President George H.W. Bush and is chairman emeritus of the World Wildlife Fund. “It’s not the case that you have the power, and can issue the thunderbolts from above.”
The outreach by Obama aides -- along with opposition from industry lobbyists -- follows last week’s proposal by the EPA to cap for the first time greenhouse gases that new power plants can emit. Those rules, and guidelines due next year for thousands of existing power generators, take aim at the source of 40 percent of the carbon dioxide released in the U.S., the world’s second-biggest producer of greenhouse gases after China.
The rules would prohibit construction of new coal-burning power plants that don’t have carbon-capture technology, a plan opposed by mining companies such as Peabody Energy Corp. (BTU:US) and utilities such as Southern Co. (SO:US) Lawmakers from coal-dependent states such as Kentucky and West Virginia have blasted the agency for waging a “war on coal,” saying the plan will result in a de facto ban on the construction of new coal-fired power plants.
The administration has sought to rally allies, adopting the hashtag #ActOnClimate on Twitter that’s been used both by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council.
McCarthy gave an interview to the environmental publication Grist and is set to appear at the annual conference of Trout Unlimited, an Arlington, Virginia-based conservation group, later this week. Today and tomorrow she is in New York, speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative and appearing on Al Roker’s Weather Channel show, “Wake up with Al.”
And the administration is also talking with those not in its climate choir. White House energy adviser Heather Zichal and EPA climate adviser Joe Goffman are set to address a group of skeptical utility regulators today. And the EPA will soon unveil a series of meetings nationwide to discuss their regulations with states, industry groups and local citizens.
Environmental groups and the EPA argue that even without the new rules, no new coal plants would be built anytime soon. Low natural-gas prices and the boom in installations of wind and solar power have cut the longterm outlook for coal. Gas-fired plants release about one-half the carbon dioxide that conventional coal-burning facilities do.
Industry groups are set to wage their own campaign, targeting coal-producing regions and areas dependent on coal for their electricity in order to prod EPA and Congress, said Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association.
“We can handle the marketplace,” Popovich said. “What we can’t handle is the government putting its finger on the scale.” Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, has vowed to push legislation to stop the rules from taking effect, an effort Republicans tried twice for related rules during Obama’s first term, and failed each time.
“There has been a firewall in the Senate, and we’re confident that the Senate firewall will remain,” Gene Karpinski, the president of the League of Conservation Voters, said in an interview.
McCarthy is already offering some details of what regulators are considering for the more far-reaching rules for the existing 2,235 coal and natural gas power plants nationwide. Those rules, scheduled to come out in June, won’t establish the tough carbon-capture criteria set for new-plants and will offer wide flexibility to states, she said.
“It’s an entirely different process,” McCarthy told reporters at a breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor Sept. 23. It’s “one that recognizes that EPA has a broader discussion about how states can reduce carbon.”
To be sure, it’s not just public opinion that will be necessary in order to get the rules implemented. Once the final regulations are published, they are sure to face legal challenges.
First up will be a decision by the Supreme Court within the next few weeks about whether it will review a federal court ruling upholding the EPA’s judgment that greenhouse gases are a danger to human health and the environment. That so-called “endangerment finding” is the legal basis for the greenhouse gas rules.
Assuming that ruling prevails, EPA will eventually have to defend its approach that said carbon capture is an “adequately demonstrated” technology. So far there are no commercial-scale power plants capturing the carbon they emit, and Southern Co., the company building the one plant under construction, in Kemper County, Mississippi, says that plant shouldn’t be a model for the country.
Because of its “unique characteristics,” it “should not serve as a primary basis for new emissions standards impacting all new coal-fired power plants,” Tim Leljedal, a Southern spokesman, said in an e-mail.
The next set of EPA rules also face legal uncertainty.
The provision of the Clean Air Act used for greenhouse gas regulation has been rarely used before, and never for an area this far-reaching, said Michael Livermore, professor of law at University of Virginia and senior adviser at the Institute for Policy Integrity in New York.
McCarthy is signaling that the agency will view the entire electric power system as one that it can push for reductions.
If the EPA sticks to that broad approach, it can achieve deeper reductions, though “there will be a vigorous dispute” about the approach,” said Kyle Danish, a lawyer at Van Ness Feldman in Washington. “We don’t have a situation where EPA has adopted the broader standard, and a court has upheld or denied them,” he said.
Both Livermore and William Pedersen, a lawyer based in Washington for Perkins Coie LLP, argue that the agency can set caps for states and then let state officials work up trading programs or other flexible programs. That stands in contrast to the rules for new plants, which set a target that each plant must achieve.
“The agency is going to have a lot of discretion here,” Livermore said in an interview. Still, “this is an issue of huge controversy.”
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