States give Senate an earful on EPA greenhouse gas plan

Wyoming critiques federal coal plant cleanup at Senate hearing.

 

In an ornate room on Capitol Hill this week, U.S. senators heard two wildly different views from Western states on the viability of a proposed rule to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation.

During the hearing, Todd Parfitt, director, Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan is “problematic and unrealistic to achieve.”

By contrast, Mary Nichols who chairs California’s Air Resource Board, called EPA’s proposal “workable” and “practical” and said she knows states can reduce greenhouse gas emissions while growing their economies and adding jobs, because that’s what’s happening in her state.

The starkly different assessments reflect a broader truth about how states are reacting to the Clean Power Plan, EPA’s proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants 30 percent by 2030, compared to 2005.  A dozen states are suing to stop the EPA from implementing the proposal. Others are fervent cheerleaders for the plan, under which, as HCN has reported, states would have different reduction targets and flexibility to meet them. States’ different reactions stem in part from the fact that they vary a great deal in how much they already have done to adopt renewable power and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Another big factor is how heavily a state relies on coal, which pumps out the most greenhouse gases, for electricity and its economy.

Wind farm in Uinta County, Wyoming. Credit: Daniel Hoherd/CC Flickr.
California and Wyoming are on opposite ends of the spectrum.

California already has committed to aggressively reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and is striving to get a third of its electrical power from renewable sources like wind and solar by 2020.

Wyoming, the nation’s largest coal mining state, produces 88 percent  of its electricity with coal. Parfitt says under the EPA proposal, the state may have to close four operating coal-fired power plants, which will be expensive for households and industries that buy electricity generated in Wyoming.

But Parfitt’s most pointed complaints about the EPA proposal concern the way it treats renewable power.

“We’ve been told that we would get no credit for wind energy that is consumed outside the state,” Parfitt said.

About 9 percent of the power Wyoming produces comes from wind, but most of that power, 85 percent, is exported to other states, including Colorado, Utah and Oregon. California is negotiating to buy Wyoming wind too. Under EPA’s proposal, states that consume the renewable power get credit for it, not the states that produce it. Wyoming argues this would make it too difficult for the state to meet the proposed target.

Wyoming is not the only state that has raised a similar issue, says Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, which represents state and local government air quality agencies. He notes that the concern is legitimate, but since the rule is only at the proposal stage, the EPA has time to respond to Wyoming’s concerns before issuing a final rule.

The EPA says it proposed allowing states to get credit for using renewable power generated in other states because it wanted to be consistent with state renewable portfolio standards. Under some states’ renewable portfolio standards, renewable energy certificates purchased from out of state can be used to comply with the standard.

“We will take all comments – including issues related to how renewable energy will be credited in state plans  into careful consideration as we work toward a final rule,” an EPA spokeswoman wrote in an email response to HCN. So far, the agency has received 3.5 million comments on its proposal.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Wyoming’s Parfitt also raised a concern that his state is constrained in building renewable power projects because more than half of Wyoming is federal land, where such projects face lengthy permitting processes.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, echoed that concern: “It seems the EPA is telling people in Wyoming to move faster on renewable energy while refusing to acknowledge that Washington’s foot is still on the regulatory brakes.”

The Obama administration’s Bureau of Land Management has been trying to streamline permitting for renewable energy projects on public lands.  A 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office found federal land agencies were taking 1.5 to 4 years to permit wind and solar projects, and that time frames were decreasing.

While officials from Ohio and Indiana, two other big coal states, joined Parfitt in stressing their opposition to the EPA proposal, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, and some other Democratic senators emphasized the need to help head off potential harms from climate change, such as droughts, wildfires, sea level rise and fiercer storms. “I’m stunned by some of (these) states’ attitude of gloom and doom,” Boxer said, referring to California’s success at growing its economy and cutting greenhouse gas pollution, “when we have states doing this and prospering.”  

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN’s Washington D.C. correspondent. Follow her @ShogrenE.