New Mexico environmental officials are among others in two dozen states pushing back against proposed federal restrictions on emissions from existing power plants. Without state support, the proposed Clean Power Plan won’t reduce carbon dioxide emissions the way the Obama administration hopes it will, according to a new report released by the nonprofit Brookings Institute.
When it comes to clean air, the federal government can set standards, but states decide how to enforce them. New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn, an attorney, is one of many environment officials across the country who think the rule has problems and may be illegal.
“We agree with the overall goal of the proposed Clean Power Plan,” said department spokeswoman Allison Majure in a statement. “However, we are also extremely concerned about the unprecedented breadth of the proposal.”
The Brookings report analyzes individual state environment department comments on the rule, proposed in 2014 by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired power plants. New Mexico has two large power plants, the 1,643-megawatt San Juan Generating Station and the 1,540-megawatt Four Corners Power Plant, both of which burn coal to generate energy.
The power plant rule was crafted under the Clean Air Act, and to meet what it sets forth, states will be responsible for writing regulations and enforcing them. The EPA can step in if it thinks the state is failing to meet clean air standards. But federal officials are limited in what they can do to force compliance, according to Philip Wallach and Curtlyn Kramer, who wrote the Brookings report.
Some states with Democratic governors also take issue with portions of the rule, according to Wallach and Kramer, finding that concerns cut across party lines and center on the fairness of the proposal as well as grid reliability and feasibility of the proposed clean power rule.
Majure added in her statement, “The Environmental Protection Agency is using the Clean Air Act, which was designed to control air pollution at the source, to dictate America’s energy policy for the next 20 years,” reflecting comments the department filed with the EPA regarding the rule months ago.
She also said the EPA failed to consult with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, energy producers and the Department of Energy in crafting the plan.
Steven Michel, chief counsel for Western Resource Advocates, a nonprofit environmental law and policy group, described New Mexico’s feedback to the EPA as thorough, detailed and mostly constructive. He also said that like many other states with complaints, it unnecessarily complicates the Clean Air Plan’s simple premise.
For each state, existing generators will have to achieve set emissions rates over time, Michel said. “There are also some very straightforward and economic ways to implement the EPA’s program,” he said, despite the assertion by Flynn and others that it will be harder and more expensive now to comply with proposed carbon dioxide standards. States could add more renewable energy to their power mix or improve the performance of power plants by switching more of their generation from coal to natural gas.
Flynn, along with environment officials in California and Colorado, contend the Clean Air Plan would be unfair to states like theirs that early on tried to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and increase renewable energy, says the Brookings report. The rule uses carbon dioxide emissions in 2012 as a baseline for setting reductions in each state. States that already made changes to reduce emissions prior to 2012 won’t be credited, while others that made no effort to reduce emissions won’t be penalized.
Michel agreed that the EPA could have done more to spur on states that have dragged their feet on emissions reductions, but he said it’s incorrect to characterize the proposed rule as a penalty for states that moved earlier.
“If states want early action credit, they should start early and not wait until 2020 to get underway,” he said.
Most of the state environment departments also said in comments to the EPA that the Clean Power Plan carbon reduction goals can’t be met without a deadline extension, according to the Brookings report. Under the proposed rule, each state has to submit a plan for reducing carbon dioxide from power plants by 2016, meet a first goal by 2020 and fully implement the plans by 2030.
New Mexico is not among the states that argue the Clean Power Plan threatens the reliability of the grid, but it is among the states, mostly Republican, that say the EPA’s proposed rule is illegal. That’s a thin argument, said Michel.
“Because they get sued whatever they do, the EPA was very careful to make sure they were within the bounds of the Clean Air Act.” Rule making through a federal bureaucracy is probably not the ideal way to address climate change-contributing emissions from power plants, said Michel, but it’s what the law requires.
“If we had a functional Congress, we could probably come up with mechanisms that work better, but we don’t. And frankly, we’re out of time.” The United States has been talking about the need to address climate change for decades, he said, and experts tend to view the 2020 goalpost as too far down the line.
While Flynn and the New Mexico Environment Department are not among the 21 states arguing the Clean Power Plan should be abandoned, Flynn has asked the EPA to change its baseline calculation for New Mexico’s carbon dioxide standard. The department also asked the agency for more flexibility in how states can meet the new emissions standards, which Michel said he fully expects the EPA to do.
“I think it’s premature to say that [proposed standards] are or aren’t attainable. I think they’re really attainable, at least in the states we’ve looked at in the interior West,” said Michel. “We absolutely need to do this. The EPA’s program is very achievable and can be done economically without jeopardizing anyone’s electric service.”
The final Clean Power Plan for existing power plants is expected in late summer, with the EPA proposing a separate rule to restrict greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants.
The full report is available at www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2015/05/27-state-environmental-agencies-clean-power-plan-wallach-kramer/cpp.pdf