Obama’s Climate Change Speech

And, that’s what it’s about: the retirement of coal, especially in the most coal dependent states. Ohio is a good example because coal accounts for some 80 percent of the state’s generation.

By Richard Bornemann | July 15, 2013

President Obama’s climate change speech at Georgetown University on June 25 was heralded as something new and groundbreaking by the news media and by many in the anti-carbon “pollution” movement. Framed by White House spokespeople as part of a legacy issue, the President ordered EPA to fast track the regulation of carbon emissions from both new and existing coal-fired power plants – still 40 percent of our country’s electric power generating base.

It was a powerful speech that touched on American technological progress, but there was little that was substantively new. After all, EPA had already committed itself to a legal settlement agreement it reached nearly three years ago – with 13 state and city governments, along with the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) – to regulate carbon emissions from existing coal-fired power plants, as well as from new ones. EPA rules proposed last year for new coal plants (1000 lbs. of CO2/megawatt hr) would, on their own, have triggered carbon regulation of the existing fleet.

Today’s coal plants were always going to get the EPA carbon “treatment” under the Clean Air Act’s Section 111(d) requirements for existing sources, as we’ve discussed before on this site.

All in all, it’s just been a matter of time and the turning of EPA’s gears that have delayed what Georgetown made center-stage and immediate. In demanding carbon regulation of existing coal plants under 111(d), President Obama took an on-going agency process, and made it a historic White House priority:

“For the sake of our children, and the health and safety of all Americans,” he ordered EPA “to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants and complete new pollution standards for both new and existing” coal-fired units. Importantly, there can be no debate because “ninety-seven percent of scientists agree” that the planet is warming and “human activity is contributing to it.”

This is the same science by consensus that has gotten so many things wrong over the years, from the persecution of Galileo in the 17th century, to the hideous mutilation of “imbeciles” and the disabled, according to a shameful 20th century “scientific consensus” on eugenics. This consensus was supported by all the most prestigious and cited names – including the great civil libertarian, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in Buck v. Bell.

More recently, Drs. Robin Warren and Barry Marshall fought for years against the decade’s-old consensus that ulcers were caused by lifestyle stress and diet; they finally won a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2005 for proving a bacterial cause for ulcers – but only after Dr. Marshall himself ate a petri dish of the suspect bacteria, developed ulcers, and then cured himself with antibiotics.

So, there’s nothing new in human nature, when it comes to our embracing a consensus of the credentialed set – even when the consensus is as manufactured as it was when physicians once endorsed cigarette brands. We want to be “smart”; we want to be with the “97 percent.”

What was different about the President’s Georgetown speech, but always true of the Greens in general, was his treatment of people who aren’t fully with the program. He called them members of the “Flat Earth Society,” and he had no “time for a meeting” with such presumably stupid people. They’re not only stupid, but also malevolent servants of “special interests and their allies in Congress.” They’ve turned their backs on their country “for a fundamental lack of faith in American business and American ingenuity.”

So it was in a speech that both soared and sneered that President Obama introduced his instructions to EPA to regulate carbon from existing coal-fired power plants under Section 111(d). It’s worth a moment to consider exactly what section 111(d) says.

It’s a vague provision of the Act that sets no tonnage limits or other emission thresholds by itself. It applies to substances that are neither “criteria pollutants” for which EPA sets National Ambient Air Quality Standards, nor air toxics.

  • “(d) [EPA] shall prescribe regulations which shall establish a procedure . . . under
    which each State shall submit to [EPA] a plan which

    • (A) establishes standards of performance for any existing source for any air pollutant
      • (i) for which [NAAQS] have not been issued or which is not included on a
        list [of air toxics regulated under section 112]
      • (ii) to which a standard of performance under this section would apply if
        such an existing source were a new source, and . . . “

All in all, then, Section 111(d) is a state-based process, albeit one in which the EPA sets whatever “guidelines” it finds appropriate for standards developed by the states. It’s in some ways an untested blank slate in the Act, one that invites interpretation according to agenda and ideology.

For instance, the Natural Resources Defense Council has suggested its own guidelines to the EPA. A plan it released in December claims to “cut existing power plant emissions by 26 percent by 2020 (relative to peak emissions in 2005).”

How? By setting overall emission rates for each state, based on the proportional carbon contributions made by coal and natural gas to a state’s total fossil emissions. Because it’s coal compared to overall fossil, and gas compared to overall fossil fuels, a utility’s existing carbon-free emissions – e.g., nuclear or hydro – wouldn’t count in relieving its carbon reduction burden going forward.

NRDC would set carbon emission rates based on 1500 lbs/megawatt hr for coal, and 1000 lbs for gas. A state would use a three-year average (2008-2010) of its megawatt hrs generated by coal, and calculate that as a percentage of its total average fossil generation. That percentage would be multiplied by the 1500 lb rate. The product of that multiplication would be added to a similar calculation for natural gas (with gas as a percentage of total fossil fuel generation multiplied by the 1000 lb rate).

Adding the two products together – the calculation for coal, and the one for gas, would set each state’s overall ceiling for carbon emissions from power plants. NRDC emphasizes that its plan is flexible and allows lots of leeway for compliance under state ceilings. It’s a form of “cap and trade.”

A generator could “reduce its own CO2 emission rate by retrofitting a more efficient boiler or installing CO2 capture systems . . .” Never mind that ‘carbon capture’ and ‘sequester technology’ has never been commercially demonstrated.

NRDC adds that “owners of multiple power plants could average the emissions rates of their plants, meeting the required emission rate on average by running coal plants less often, and ramping up generation from natural gas plants or renewable resources instead. Lastly, utilities could simply “retire coal plants and build new natural gas and renewable capacity . . . ”

And, that’s what it’s about: the retirement of coal, especially in the most coal dependent states. Ohio is a good example because coal accounts for some 80 percent of the state’s generation. Using annual Energy Information Administration generation data by state and source, and applying the NRDC’s suggested guidelines, Ohio’s fossil generators would have to reduce their overall carbon emissions rate almost 30 percent – by 2020. The NRDC would ratchet that down further by 2025, when its plan purportedly reduces national power plant carbon emissions by 34 percent from their 2005 levels.

Something to keep in mind is that the NRDC is probably the most reasonable of the big Green organizations. It has a long history of working with utilities on fossil and nuclear issues. And while its plan may be legally unworkable – because it’s based on states and the grouping of coal and gas plants, instead of on the Act’s framework of source and source category regulation – it’s probably the least harsh prescription we’re going to see from anti-carbon activists.

And many plans will surface in response to President Obama’s instructions to EPA to “develop [its] standards in an open and transparent way.” Governors will have proposals, along with state environmental officials and utilities. There’ll be lots of meetings and “workshops,” and participants will be led to believe that they’ve “gotten through” to EPA with their concerns.

But it will be groups like the Sierra Club and 350.org that will really run the EPA’s show. They have the money and lobbying might to “convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution,” to organize campaigns against electricity providers under the President’s call to “Invest. Divest.”

There is a lot of work to do between now and next June 1, when EPA’s proposed rules are due. Complacency in the face of the “consensus” will not work.

Richard Bornemann has provided strategic legislative and regulatory counsel to American energy and surface transportation companies of all sizes for more than 20 years. He is an energy and environment analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research, and author of American Energy Independence: A Policy Review 1973-2012. Mr. Bornemann is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.