Senators Grill EPA Clean Air Chief over CO2 Rule

In the U.S. Senate today, the Environment and Public Works Committee took up a plan by President Obama to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The proposed EPA regulation would require a 30 percent reduction in carbon dioxide by 2030.  Republicans call it federal overreach, and Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan had more objections than time allowed.

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Each senator at the hearing had eight minutes to confront EPA Clean Air boss Janet McCabe. Some questioned the point of reducing U.S. emissions if China and India aren’t lowering theirs. Others raised home-state details they say make the regulations impossible. Alaska’s Dan Sullivan, when it was his turn, challenged the Obama Administration’s authority to regulate C02 emissions from power plants.

“You’ve tried to get this authorization before and Congress has not passed it,” Sullivan told McCabe. “You’re not allowed to then move forward with the regulation to do what Congress won’t allow.”

Sullivan likened it to the president’s executive action on immigration, and Obama’s quest for a wilderness designation in the Arctic Refuge. Sullivan quoted from a Supreme Court opinion scolding the EPA for over-reach in another Clean Air program, and tried to get McCabe to acknowledge a parallel.

Do you think that this regulation dramatically expands your authority?” he asked.

“I believe we’re following what the Clean Air Act requires,” she said. “This is a statute that Congress enacted to protect public health from air pollution. The agency over a number of years … has made a determination that CO2 endangers public health and welfare. That determination was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Sullivan didn’t get into specifics about how the regulation would apply in Alaska, but the senator implied bad stuff ahead.

“Mr. Chairman, my time has expired. I have several additional questions that I’ll submit for the record, particularly as it relates to Interior Alaska, communities such as Fairbanks that pay enormously high energy costs and are going to be severely, severely negatively impacted by this rule,” he said.

In Alaska, the proposed emissions rule would apply only to power plants on the grid, and it’s easy to see why Fairbanks would feel it’s in the regulatory crosshairs. The Fairbanks utility relies on coal and oil for about 60 percent of its power supply. The CEO of Golden Valley Electric has already warned of higher rates if it has to install emissions-reducing equipment to satisfy the mandate.

But that may not be necessary, says Michael Tubman, who worked on energy issues in the State of Alaska’s D.C. office for a string of governors, from Knowles to Palin.

“It’ll be completely up to the state as to where they want to put their resources, how they want to make those reductions,” said Tubman. He’s now a Senior Fellow at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a Washington-based think-tank formerly known as the Pew Center for Global Climate Change.

The power plant rule sets a reduction target for each state. Alaska’s is 26 percent. Tubman says the rule wouldn’t necessarily require changes at the power plants themselves.

The state, he said,  “could choose to reduce emissions from coal and natural gas plants. Or it could decide to build more renewable energy. It could decide to institute an energy efficiency program and get most of the reductions that way.”

Reductions in CO2 that have come since 2012 will count toward the state’s target. Tubman says modernizing the Railbelt transmission grid could be a big source of carbon savings.

Alaska has considered that for years, to save money and improve reliability, but the price tag is about a billion dollars.

Tubman points out the rule isn’t final yet.

“I think Sen. Sullivan’s position on the Environment and Public Works committee really offers him an opportunity to have EPA look at their proposal and look at it from an Alaska lens and perhaps make some changes that are advantageous to the state,” he said.

Tubman suggests Sullivan might ask to expand what counts as a carbon reduction to include off-grid sources, like new wind generators in diesel-dependent rural Alaska.

“That might allow the state to reduce its emissions while achieving other policy goals,” he said.

The EPA hopes to issue final rules this summer, with state compliance plans due a year later.