Western states wrestle with Obama’s Clean Power Plan

Closed-door sessions on the EPA's proposal to cut coal-fired power plant emissions.


Representatives of 13 Western states and utilities will gather this week in Denver to grapple with the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to cut greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday are part of a series of closed-door sessions convened by former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter beginning in July 2014, after the EPA proposed reducing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 30 percent on average by 2030.

Former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter at Fort Carson solar array.  U.S. Army photo by Michael J. Pach.
Former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter at Fort Carson solar array. U.S. Army photo by Michael J. Pach.
“I believe out of all the things that are happening in America, this plan is the one that is likely to have the most impact on energy systems around the country and certainly in the West,” said Ritter, who directs the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University.

Participants brainstorm about uniquely Western complexities to implementing EPA’s Clean Power Plan, such as hydropower, massive stretches of federal lands, electricity generation by tribes and an interconnected grid. High-ranking EPA officials have attended most sessions, according to participants.

The ongoing discussions show that states see it’s in their best interests to get ready for the EPA rule, despite strong pushback against it. Sen. Majority leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, has urged states to say no to the EPA’s plan.  He wrote a letter to governors in March arguing that states should resist because the EPA is “overreaching” its authority.  In response, Oklahoma’s governor late last month directed his state’s environment agency not to formulate a plan to implement a rule. And in some other states, including Wyoming and South Dakota, attorneys general are challenging the proposed rule in court and legislatures are passing bills to create hurdles for the plan.

But legally, states don’t get to take a pass on national air pollution rules. If a state fails to craft its own plan, the EPA will take over. Oklahoma’s decision was surprising, said Henry Darwin, director of Arizona’s Department of Environmental Quality, because it would put the EPA in the driver’s seat for setting up a policy that would have huge impact on the state’s economy.

He added that his state is waiting to see EPA’s final rule. Then it will decide whether to sue the agency, craft a state plan or let the EPA implement its yet-to-be proposed federal policy in the state. 

In the meantime, he said, Arizona is doing an “immense amount of work’’ considering its options for reducing greenhouse emissions, and Ritter’s sessions have been helpful.

“He has access to EPA and to the White House that a lot of us don’t,” Darwin said. “When he invites EPA, they send very high level officials to those meetings. That’s a benefit to states like mine that don’t have that kind of access to EPA because of our political differences.” He adds that a single state—red or blue—wouldn’t get the same high-level response from the EPA as the gathering of states does.

This week’s session is the first that brings together state officials and electric utilities (previously they’d been meeting separately) and about 100 people are expected to attend, according to Jeff Lyng, senior policy advisor for the Center for the New Energy Economy. Participants will hear from the White Great Plains Institute, a research group that analyzed the states’ options for working together and separately to implement EPA’s proposed rule.

Ritter was reluctant to reveal much detail about the meetings, which are closed to the press and the public.

Participants span a wide spectrum of views on the EPA plan, including two of the 14 states trying to block the proposal in federal court — Wyoming and South Dakota — and some of its biggest proponents, like California and Oregon. Ritter said preserving “confidences” helps the sessions remain a venue for “constructive conversations.”

Ten of the 13 states attending Ritter’s meetings signed on to a joint comment letter on the rule in October 2014. New Mexico, Wyoming and North Dakota opted not to sign, but continued to meet with the group.

Among the concerns that the states share is the particular challenge of constructing renewable power projects and connecting those projects with transmission lines given the huge amount of federal land in many of their states, as HCN has reported. Energy projects on federal land require time-consuming permits and reviews.

“I don’t think the EPA is taking that into consideration in these tight timeframes,” said Darwin, referring to the 2020 and 2030 greenhouse gas reduction targets the EPA set for each state in its proposed rule.

Two of the four intakes above the Hoover Dam, Feb. 24, 2013. Variability of hydropower makes reducing greenhouse gases trickier for Western states. Paul Gorbould
Another mutual concern of the Western states is how the EPA proposal will reflect the variable availability of hydropower. Hydropower helps states meet their greenhouse gas reductions targets because unlike fossil fuel power plants, it does not release greenhouse gases. As climate change decreases flows of some rivers, states expect to have less hydropower in the future, which could make it harder to reach greenhouse gas reduction targets. This is just one example of how the effects of climate change are making it more complicated to fight climate change.

Once the rule comes out, which EPA says will be in midsummer, Ritter expects the pace of these meetings to increase. So far, he said no multistate pacts have emerged. Ritter says he’s orchestrating the sessions because he loves the West, and not at EPA’s request. “Colorado State University is not an agent for EPA,” he stressed, “This is one of the biggest things happening, and it’s important for the West.”

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC correspondent.  

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