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Saturday, March 14, 2015

Greenhouse Gas Regulations

A little over a week ago, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell wrote an op-ed piece arguing that state governments should not write standards for implementing new EPA regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. McConnell notes almost in passing that these regulations are "probably illegal," even though the regulations seem pretty clearly to be authorized (if not required) by the Supreme Court in a 2007 ruling. Essentially, the Bush administration tried to ignore greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, but their position was inconsistent with the law. The case dealt with vehicle emissions, but power plants are obviously an even bigger source of the gases.

In December 2009, the EPA Administrator found:
...that the current and projected concentrations of the six key well-mixed greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) — in the atmosphere threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations.
The parts in bold effectively require the EPA to act to regulate greenhouse gases, which makes McConnell's argument fairly silly. Here's what is likely to happen if states follow McConnell's advice:
Jody Freeman, director of Harvard University’s environmental law program and a former senior counselor to President Obama, said that option would be worse for states than simply preparing and submitting their own plans. 
“It would put states at a huge disadvantage if they choose not to file a plan,” she said. “It gives E.P.A. the option of implementing their own plan themselves, but the E.P.A. may not have the best plan for each state. States should be designing these plans themselves.” 
Historically, states that have refused to submit compliance plans for E.P.A. rules have been forced to follow standards crafted by the department’s officials in Washington. Former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, a longtime opponent of the department’s pollution regulations, for instance, refused to submit state-level plans for compliance to other rules. In the end, Texas businesses were eventually forced to comply with the federally imposed plan.
In any case, the McConnell story got me to thinking about the Obama administration's legacy on climate change. About 18 months ago, Time columnist Michael Grunwald wrote the following in a piece about the Keystone pipeline:
Imagine if President Obama had promised in his long-awaited climate speech in June to launch the first 45 renewable-electricity projects ever built on federal land, enough to power 4.4 million homes. Imagine that he also pledged to slash the government’s carbon emissions by 15%, jack up vehicle-efficiency standards enough to eliminate an entire year’s worth of U.S. emissions by 2025 and enact appliance-efficiency standards that would save enough electricity to power every single-family home for two years. 
Then imagine if he vowed to spark a clean-energy revolution with unprecedented investments in wind, solar and geothermal power; electric vehicles; a smarter grid; cleaner coal; green research; and much more.
Here's the punch line he offered:
It would have confirmed the suspicions of many Republicans who have trashed him as an eco-radical. It would have delighted many environmentalists who have trashed him as an AWOL commander in the war on global warming. 
It also would have been weird, because Obama already did all those things in his first term. He has probably done more to reduce emissions than anyone else in history, but his critics on the right and the left haven’t noticed.
Long after Grunwald's piece appeared, in November 2014, Obama pledged that the U.S. would reduce greenhouse gas emissions "26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025." I realize that those numbers represent aspiration rather than action, but much of the reduction is going to come from policies already set in place.

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