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EPA's small step to a curb

Published December 3, 2010 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Let's get one thing straight: The EPA's plan to limit greenhouse-gas emissions from standing sources is nothing radical. States may sue, a bipartisan swarm of senators may politick to stop it, and energy lobbyists may fret about jobs and the economy, but no matter what the alarmists say, the rule won't shut anyone down.

It can't. For one thing, the rule, which goes into effect Jan. 2, only applies to the largest, new carbon-emitting plants and their significant modifications. For another, the regulatory arm of the federal government has no more interest in making life difficult for industry than does Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-West Va., who's leading the congressional charge for delay. Written into the Environmental Protection Agency's policy guidance is a provision that says, hey, if it's too hard, forget it. We won't hold you to it if it's going to break the bank.

Plus, since the number of foolproof, market-ready gadgets available for controlling carbon dioxide currently stands at exactly zero, the EPA's rulemaking, which calls for new plants to employ the "best available control technology," doesn't amount to much, at least for now. The best of zero is still zero.

You wouldn't know that, though, from the dire warnings of catastrophe. Rockefeller has been arguing for a two-year wait, claiming the EPA hasn't had time to craft a rule that won't crash the economy. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has schemed to strip the EPA completely of its authority to protect public health. Scott Segal of the law firm Bracewell and Giuliani warned on television that the rule means a "moratorium on all new construction in the energy sector and in the manufacturing sector."

But William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, advises you not to listen to any of it. "It's garbage," he says. "What you're hearing is garbage." Pro-coal EPA foes are "trying to scare the pants off people," says Becker, whose organization represents pollution-control districts nationwide. "They're saying 'It's going to halt growth. The states don't have the capacity to regulate this.' None of that is true."

The new rule — a "tailoring" of the Clean Air Act to include greenhouse gases — is the EPA's response to the U.S. Supreme Court's 2007 decision that the agency should regulate such emissions if it found they endangered public health.

In 2009, EPA scientists concluded that an altered climate and its attendant floods and fires could indeed spell bad news, and went to work writing new rules to regulate the culprits. These new rules expand on the same age-old standard that's been used to constrain other pollutants, such as the sulfur that makes rain acidic: If there's something on the market that can fix it, use it. And if there isn't, just do the best you can.

There are lots of greenhouse gases to worry about — methane, nitrous oxide, the hydro-chlorofluorocarbons that fuel air conditioners. But the one that's used the most and lingers longest is carbon dioxide. And carbon dioxide, unlike sulfur dioxide or mercury, can't be scrubbed, absorbed or flushed away. One day it might be possible to capture and sequester it, but the technology to do that remains in its expensive infancy.

So the only way to dramatically reduce carbon emissions is to prohibit burning coal, which the EPA can't do. Instead, federal regulators will work with state authorities to come up with realistic new construction permits, factoring in the cost and feasibility of what will mostly consist of improvements to plant efficiency.

In states like Wyoming, where state law forbids regulating greenhouse gases, the federal government will take over permitting with the state's cooperation. (Only Texas has refused to develop a state plan or accept federal interference, which means that if Texans want to build a new coal plant after Jan. 2, they will do so in violation of federal law.)

The sad truth is that the EPA rule is too anemic to make much difference: It won't halt new construction, and neither will it do much about the carbon content of the atmosphere, which is careering fast toward 400 parts per million, the highest in tens of millions of years.

But environmentalists shouldn't despair that the rule is meaningless. The EPA's push could drive new technology. It could also give regulators a clearer sense of the problem.

"For the first time in history," Becker says, "EPA will require that facilities go through a process of examining every piece of their operations and take actions to improve energy efficiency. And arguably, they should have been doing that anyway."

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an op-ed service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a contributing editor to the magazine from California.