EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson testifies before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee about her agency’s budget this morning, and she’s given the committee plenty to talk about.
In a letter on Monday responding to questions from Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and seven other coal-state Democrats, Jackson spelled out her plans for the endangerment finding — the EPA determination in December that greenhouse gases pose a danger to public health and welfare. That finding laid the foundation for future greenhouse gas regulation under the Clean Air Act and stirred up fierce opposition from major emitters.
In the letter, Jackson set a timeline for phasing in greenhouse gas regulations starting in 2011 with only the largest emitters, and she suggested that federal officials will be looking for fast development of carbon capture and storage technologies, or CCS.
First, power plants and industries are off the hook for this year. Jackson said she expects the EPA to begin phasing in permit requirements and greenhouse gas regulations in 2011, and only those companies already applying for Clean Air Act permits for other reasons will have to address greenhouse gas emissions in their permits during the first half of 2011. That would be fewer than 400 plants, she said.
Once the EPA does start phasing in greenhouse gas regulations, between 2011 and 2013, Jackson said she expects the threshold for emitters who are subject to the regulations to be “substantially higher” than the 25,000-ton limit she proposed in her soon-to-be-finalized tailoring rule.
“In any event, EPA does not intend to subject the smallest sources to Clean Air Act permitting for greenhouse-gas emissions any sooner than 2016,” Jackson wrote. She didn’t specify a lower limit for “smallest sources,” though she has said repeatedly that small businesses won’t be adversely affected.
The EPA will be using that extra time before regulations begin to determine what the “best available control technology” — required for new pollution sources and major modifications to old facilities — might be, particularly for coal and natural gas power plants. Jackson said the agency was closely watching development of carbon capture and storage from coal-fired power plants and that it would consider the state of that development when it determines the BACT options.
“EPA’s goal will be to identify practical, achievable and cost-effective strategies for minimizing emissions increases from new facilities and major modifications, recognizing the importance of those projects to the economy and job creation,” Jackson wrote.
The industries affected would bear “only modest impacts on production costs,” she said.
The Supreme Court and the Murkowski Challenge
The endangerment finding puts the U.S. government in line with a nearly three-year-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling. In Massachusetts v. EPA, the high court found in early 2007 that EPA had the authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act and ordered the EPA to make a determination based on science: If the agency found greenhouse gases posed a danger to public health and welfare, the EPA would have to begin setting standards to regulate greenhouse gases emissions from motor vehicles. The EPA drafted a finding then, but the Bush White House never acted on it.
Despite the legal basis for the endangerment finding, the EPA is now under attack from fossil fuel industries and their supporters, and it is facing legislative challenges in Congress.
Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski introduced a “resolution of disapproval” under the Congressional Review Act last month designed to prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. It’s is a rarely used procedure that can prohibit rules written by a federal agency from taking effect.
In her letter, Jackson addressed the impact if Murkowski’s resolution is enacted. One result, she said, would be a patchwork of greenhouse gas standards for vehicles — something the auto industry doesn’t want.
The federal clean cars program, agreed to in a deal last spring with the auto industry, hinges on the endangerment finding. With the finding in place, the EPA is obligated to issue greenhouse gas emissions standards for motor vehicles, which Jackson said she plans to do next month, starting with the 2012-2016 model years. At the same time, the Department of Transportation will be raising fuel-economy standards. Together, Jackson said, the new standards will reduce those vehicles lifetime oil consumption by 1.8 billion barrels and eliminate 950 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
No endangerment finding, no federal tailpipe emissions regulation. However, California and at least 13 other states would still likely enforce their standards, creating a frustrating patchwork of rules for the industry.
Jackson is clear about how approval of Murkowski’s amendment would look to the rest of the world:
“A vote to vitiate the greenhouse gas endangerment finding would be viewed as a vote to reject the scientific work of 13 U.S. government departments that contribute to the U.S. Global Change Research Program," Jackson wrote.
“It also would be viewed by many as a vote to move the United States to a position behind that of China on the issue of climate change, and more in line with the position of Saudi Arabia.”
Coal States and Clean Energy
The coal-state Democrats’ letter — also signed by Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Robert Casey (D-Pa.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who is on the committee Jackson will speak to today — still expressed support for climate and energy legislation:
“We strong believe this is ultimately Congress’ responsibility, and if done properly, will create jobs, spur new clean energy industries, and greatly advance the goal of U.S. independence," they wrote. "If done improperly, these opportunities could be lost.”
Rockefeller added that he is drafting legislation “to suspend EPA’s regulatory authority to allow sufficient time for Congressional consideration of the nation’s larger energy policy and economic needs.”
“At a time when so many people are hurting, we need to put the decisions about our energy future in to the hands of the people and their elected representatives — especially on issues impacting clean coal. EPA actions in this area would have enormous implications and these issues need to be handled carefully and appropriately dealt with by the Congress, not in isolation by a federal environmental agency,” he said.
Whether those issues get handled at all by Congress remains to be seen.
The American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) bill barely passed the House, and only after significant concessions to major emitters, particularly the coal industry. In the Senate, Democrat John Kerry and Republican Lindsey Graham have been working on a compromise climate bill and are expected to release more details this week, though it may end up little more than an energy bill that embraces clean coal and nuclear power.
The nation’s governors, meanwhile, have been leading the charge with real action to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire said this about the lack of action from Congress and the backlash to the EPA’s efforts to deal with climate change:
“A majority of my colleagues and I — Democrats and Republicans, alike — have worked at the state and regional level to promote clean energy jobs, energy independence, and caps on greenhouse gas emissions. In the absence of comprehensive federal energy and climate legislation, EPA must be applauded for accepting the responsibility Congress has given it under the Clean Air Act to reduce carbon dioxide and other pollutants that threaten our people and our communities.”
UPDATE: This morning’s hearing, intended to be about the EPA’s budget, turned into a debate over climate science, with one of Congress’s staunchest opponents of climate action launching another attack on science, this time going directly after the scientists themselves.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) used his position as the ranking Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee to issue a “minority report” that pulled a handful of comments out of thousands of pages of private emails among scientists that were hacked into last year at a British university just before the international climate change conference in Copenhagen. Inhofe, whose leading campaign funder is the oil and gas industry, has been trying for years to back up his claim that climate science is a "hoax". His colleague, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), joined his criticism, drawing from British business and policy consultant Christopher Monckton’s science skeptic group, the Science and Public Policy Institute, for his arguments.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and other committee members explained again that personal conversations taken out of context and a few errors in the volumes complied by the IPCC don’t negate all the measurements and observations that clearly show the planet is warming. Jackson said she doesn’t condone some of those personal email conversations, but they don’t change the science, she said. The EPA reviewed "multiple lines of evidence from many, many sources" including work by NASA, NOAA, the Department of Energy labs and the National Academies of Science, Jackson said.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) couldn’t hold back his frustration with his committee colleagues: ”This country faces many, many problems, not the least of which is we have national leaders who are rejecting basic science.”