The EPA takes a small step toward curbing greenhouse gases

  • Judith Lewis

 

Let's get one thing straight: The EPA's plan to limit greenhouse-gas emissions from standing sources is nothing radical. States may sue, a bipartisan swarm of senators may politick to stop it, and energy lobbyists may fret about jobs and the economy, but no matter what the alarmists say, the rule won't shut anyone down.

It can't. For one thing, the rule, which goes into effect Jan. 2, only applies to the largest, new carbon-emitting plants and their significant modifications. For another, the regulatory arm of the federal government has no more interest in making life difficult for industry than does Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-West Va., who's leading the congressional charge for delay. Written into the Environmental Protection Agency's policy guidance is a provision that says, hey, if it's too hard, forget it. We won't hold you to it if it's going to break the bank.

Plus, since the number of foolproof, market-ready gadgets available for controlling carbon dioxide currently stands at exactly zero, the EPA's rulemaking, which calls for new plants to employ the "best available control technology," doesn't amount to much, at least for now. The best of zero is still zero.

You wouldn't know that, though, from the dire warnings of catastrophe. Rockefeller has been arguing for a two-year wait, claiming the EPA hasn't had time to craft a rule that won't crash the economy. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has schemed to strip the EPA completely of its authority to protect public health. Scott Segal of the law firm Bracewell and Giuliani warned on television that the rule means a "moratorium on all new construction in the energy sector and in the manufacturing sector."

But William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, advises you not to listen to any of it. "It's garbage," he says. "What you're hearing is garbage." Pro-coal EPA foes are "trying to scare the pants off people," says Becker, whose organization represents pollution-control districts nationwide. "They're saying 'It's going to halt growth. The states don't have the capacity to regulate this.' None of that is true."

The new rule -- a "tailoring" of the Clean Air Act to include greenhouse gases -- is the EPA's response to the U.S. Supreme Court's 2007 decision that the agency should regulate such emissions if it found they endangered public health. In 2009, EPA scientists concluded that an altered climate and its attendant floods and fires could indeed spell bad news, and went to work writing new rules to regulate the culprits. These new rules expand on the same age-old standard that's been used to constrain other pollutants, such as the sulfur that makes rain acidic: If there's something on the market that can fix it, use it. And if there isn't, just do the best you can.

There are lots of greenhouse gases to worry about -- methane, nitrous oxide, the hydro-chlorofluorocarbons that fuel air conditioners. But the one that's used the most and lingers longest is carbon dioxide. And carbon dioxide, unlike sulfur dioxide or mercury, can't be scrubbed, absorbed or flushed away. One day it might be possible to capture and sequester it, but the technology to do that remains in its expensive infancy.

So the only way to dramatically reduce carbon emissions is to prohibit burning coal, which the Environmental Protection Agency can't do. Instead, federal regulators will work with state authorities to come up with realistic new construction permits, factoring in the cost and feasibility of what will mostly consist of improvements to plant efficiency.

In states like Wyoming, where state law forbids regulating greenhouse gases, the federal government will take over permitting with the state's cooperation. (Only Texas has refused to develop a state plan or accept federal interference, which means that if Texans want to build a new coal plant after Jan. 2, they will do so in violation of federal law.)

The sad truth is that the EPA rule is too anemic to make much difference: It won't halt new construction, and neither will it do much about the carbon content of the atmosphere, which is careering fast toward 400 parts per million, the highest in tens of millions of years.

But environmentalists shouldn't despair that the rule is meaningless: The EPA's push could drive new technology. It could also give regulators a clearer sense of the problem.

"For the first time in history," Becker says, "EPA will require that facilities go through a process of examining every piece of their operations and take actions to improve energy efficiency. And arguably, they should have been doing that anyway."

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an op-ed service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a contributing editor to the magazine from California.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • FEATURES DIRECTOR - HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Features Director to join our editorial...
  • GENERAL MANAGER
    The Board of UYWCD seeks a new GM to manage operations & to implement our robust strategic plan. Details at www.upperyampawater.com. EOE
  • IN TUCSON, FOR SALE: A BEAUTIFUL, CLASSIC MID-CENTURY MODERN HOME
    designed by architect David Swanson in 1966. Located a block from Saguaro National Forest, yet minutes to Downtown and the UofA campus, 3706 sqft, 6...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Friends of the San Juans is seeking a new leader guide our efforts to protect and restore the San Juan Islands and the Salish...
  • 80 ACRES
    straddles North Platte Fishery, Wyoming. Legal access 2 miles off 1-80. Call 720-440-7633.
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • OWN A THRIVING MOUNTAIN GUIDE SERVICE.
    Eastern Sierra guide service for sale to person with vision & expertise to take it onwards. Since 1995 with USFS & NPS permits. Ideal for...
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...