Coal Tattoo

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Readers of Sunday’s Gazette-Mail got not only my story about what the Obama administration’s “endangerment finding” on climate change means for coal-fired power plants, but also a piece by my AP friend Dina Cappiello putting congressional debate about climate change legislation into some historical perspective.

(As I wrote in Sunday’s story EPA in its finding cited detailed scientific studies that project a variety of impacts from climate change, including increased drought, more heavy downpours and flooding, more frequent and intense heat waves and wildfires, greater sea level rise, more intense storms, and damage to water resources, agriculture, wildlife and ecosystems. More detailed information on the basis for EPA’s finding is available here, in the agency’s Technical Support Document. For a plain English explanation of the impacts of inaction, visit this recent post from Joe Romm’s excellent Climate Progress blog or look at my suggested reading for Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., here. Capito has thrown in with the Republican leadership that continues to deny that global warming is a big problem that we must deal with right away).

My story focused mostly on what the proposed EPA finding  eventually will mean regarding construction of new coal-fired power plants. In short, this finding — if finalized — is going to mean that, absent congressional action otherwise, EPA must set some standard for carbon dioxide emissions controls for new coal plants.

Why? Because Section 111 of the Clean Air Act contains nearly identical language to the vehicle emissions section that was the subject of the U.S. Supreme Court case that led to last week’s EPA action.

The section that governs motor vehicle emissions requires EPA to act if the agencies concludes the emissions “cause, or contribute to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.”

The section that applies to coal-fired power plants (and other stationary sources of pollution)  requires EPA action of emissions from a class of source “causes, or contributes significantly to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.”

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As the Union of Concerned Scientists explains, based on EPA data, annual carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants are greater than the emissions from all cars, trucks, planes, trains and other forms of transportation combined.

And look at this graphic:

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So, it seems unlikely that the same EPA that says vehicles emissions must be regulated won’t make the same conclusion about coal-fired power plants.

And eventually, these regulators are going to come knocking on the doors of existing coal-fired power plants, too.  Why? Because the law requires them to do so.

Take a gander at Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act:

(d) Standards of performance for existing sources; remaining useful life of source.

 (1) The Administrator shall prescribe regulations which shall

establish a procedure similar to that provided by section 7410 of this title under which each State shall submit to the Administrator a plan which

(A) establishes standards of performance for any existing source for any air pollutant (i) for which air quality criteria have not been issued or which is not included on a list published under section 7408(a) of this title or emitted from a source category which is regulated under section 7412 of this title but (ii) to which a standard of performance under this section would apply if such existing source were a new source, and

(B) provides for the implementation and enforcement of such standards of performance. Regulations of the Administrator under this paragraph shall permit the State in applying a
standard of performance to any particular source under a plan submitted under this paragraph to take into consideration, among other factors, the remaining useful life of the existing source to which such standard applies.

(2) The Administrator shall have the same authority–
(A) to prescribe a plan for a State in cases where the State
fails to submit a satisfactory plan as he would have under section
7410(c) of this title in the case of failure to submit an
implementation plan, and
(B) to enforce the provisions of such plan in cases where the
State fails to enforce them as he would have under sections 7413 and 7414 of this title with respect to an implementation plan.

In promulgating a standard of performance under a plan prescribed under this paragraph, the Administrator shall take into consideration, among other factors, remaining useful lives of the sources in the category of sources to which such standard applies.

What’s all that mean?

Basically, if EPA sets carbon dioxide emissions control standards for new coal-fired power plants,  this part of the law requires states to set similar standards for existing coal-fired power plants. If states don’t do it, then EPA has to do it. In either case, regulators are supposed to take into account the “remaining useful lives” of the facilities in question.

I don’t know how much of an out that last part provides to state officials who want to take as little action against coal as possible.

But what if West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin really wanted his state to be on the forefront of dealing with energy and climate change issues? Would he instruct the Department of Environmental Protection to immediately begin writing rules to limit carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants? One way or another, it looks like those regulations are coming.

For anyone who is interested, visit this part of EPA’s Web site for instructions on commenting on this endangerment finding.