The new president had a very productive first three days in office, sending loud and clear signals using Executive Orders of the change he's bringing to Washington, and by all appearances it looks like he sent a signal to the coal industry in a letter, courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency.
In what might have been her first act as new EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson revoked an air permit that her predecessor had granted to the the Big Stone II coal plant in South Dakota. It was just in the nick of time – on "the dead last day for review for the plant's application." Industry officials who spoke to media claimed there was nothing unusual in the move, while Sierra Club spokespeople claimed a victory for the return of the rule of law.
Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club's Move Beyond Coal Campaign, said in a release:
EPA is signaling that it is back to enforcing long-standing legal requirements fairly and consistently nationwide.
The Big Stone project was in jeopardy last year when two administrative law judges in neighboring Minnesota recommended that the state deny permits to build transmissions lines for Big Stone II to serve customers in Minnesota. The judges said the utilities involved failed to prove that they actually needed the coal plant. Further, the judges were not convinced that the coal plant would be less expensive than power generated from renewable energy when environmental costs were taken into consideration, as required by Minnesota law. Two weeks ago, however, Minnesota's Public Utilities Commission ignored the judges' recommendation and approved the permits anyway. The EPA stepped in just in time.
Fresh Energy Executive Director Michael Noble, whose group opposed the plant, thinks the EPA action signals the end of project:
The Big Stone project almost surely will never be built, with proceedings in both South Dakota and Minnesota filled with errors, omissions, and costly mistakes. At some point, the risks and costs become overwhelming, and investors walk away. Clean renewable energy and efficiency will be the resource of choice when all the twists and turns are done.
Although the Sierra Club claims in its release that the plant was halted due to concerns over carbon dioxide emissions, Brad Johnson writing from the Wonk Room points out that the EPA is currently enjoined from considering carbon dioxide pollution in coal plant permits because of a last minute order by outgoing EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson. So the EPA invoked the Clean Air Act to put a halt to Big Stone II over official concern about state-of-the-art pollution controls, and South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources now has 90 days to respond.
Still, it's hard not to read the EPA decision as another signal from the new administration that it is acting immediately on the inaugural promise to "roll back the specter of a warming planet." The last minute order left behind by Bush's Johnson is merely a minor annoyance, like so much gum on the bottom of a shoe.
During the election season, Obama campaign aides said his administration would use the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon emissions, and this unequivocal first signal sent during Week 1 in office is an indication of regulatory moves to come from White House climate adviser Carol Browner – a former EPA chief under Clinton – and Lisa Jackson.
Experts believe the clean air law can be used to establish federal standards to stabilize emissions from carbon-intensive sources of pollution – steel mills, cement plants and heavy industries – and coal plants. Since the Supreme Court affirmed in Massachusetts v. EPA that CO2 could be regulated as a pollutant under the law, it has become an open question as to how existing coal plants and permits for new ones would fare under the federal law. Many provisions offer mechanisms for regulating coal burning.
But the real question is how aggressively the law will be applied, for in the short term, the question of coal rests largely in Obama's hands. He has the regulatory tools at his disposal to stop new dirty coal plants cold, and he just proved it.
It is a highly encouraging first step. In Congress, powerful lobbies are still holding science hostage. It is precisely this kind of agenda-setting from the White House that will set the science-based tone for the needed legislative climate fixes being contemplated for 2009.
So far so good; and after eight long, dark years, a collective planetary woo-hoo! is in order, even if we're less than a week into it.