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Bluff and Bluster: The Real Story Behind EPA Regulating Greenhouse Gases (Part 2)

This April, USEPA expects to finalize a rule intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from mobile sources (cars, trucks, buses, etc.), largely by demanding greater fuel economy in the transportation sector. No doubt there will be much rejoicing among the tree-hugging set when that happens, but there is another consequence to that action that has largely flown under the old media’s radar: the day that the mobile source rule goes final is the day that the Agency starts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other large industrial sources.

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It’s a matter of regulatory logic. Once the Agency starts to regulate a pollutant in one sector, it must regulate said pollutant in all sectors under its purview. When and if this side effect of the mobile source rule come to light, it will – no doubt – be used as a “gotcha moment” by environmentalist groups and the old media. “See, now EPA is going to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Act, because you wouldn’t give us cap and trade. We waaaarned you!”

Don’t lose much sleep over it. Nothing about this event will require any existing fossil fuel fired power plant to cut their greenhouse gas emissions one bit, install costly new controls or pass the expense of doing so on to you. All that is going to happen in April is that those plants are going to have to file amended permit applications, applications that reflect the latest and greatest pollutant in the Agency’s arsenal: greenhouse gases. While nobody on the industrial side is much looking forward to having to file such voluminous applications once again, the state and regional regulatory agencies that will have to deal with the flood of incoming paperwork positively dread the moment.

Actually, limiting greenhouse gas emissions takes more regulatory action – a lot more – than just dealing with new permit applications. The EPA has to issue rules that specify acceptable emission rates, rules that must be customized to accommodate a wide variety of sources. The agency has to evaluate available control technologies and determine the record keeping, reporting, testing and monitoring measures that will be required of industry. All of these rulemaking requirements tumble out of the Clean Air Act and all of the other rulemakings that have relied upon the act.

Paperwork

Consider one example, in order to truly understand how long this process takes. In 2009 the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) went into effect. This is a rule that reduces emissions of nitrogen oxides (a pollutant that helps form smog) and other pollutants from big power plants, using a regional cap and trade program. The roots of CAIR date back to the Clinton administration. The EPA bureaucracy began to grind through every step of the Clean Air Act process to get the rule done in its current form starting in 2003 and they’re still not truly done. Though CAIR went into effect in 2009, the courts have ordered EPA to propose a new version of the rule to replace the current one.

Many of the reasons that the Clean Air Act rulemaking process is so tedious can be laid squarely at the feet of environmental groups. They demanded, and got, more: more public participation, more stakeholder meetings, more rights to appeal, more opportunities to comment and more Agency obligation to respond to those comments. The patched-together, enormously time-consuming process of rulemaking under the Clean Air Act is the kind of bureaucratic nightmare that one normally associates with Terry Gilliam’s 1985 tribute to regulators gone wild: Brazil.

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In summary, as far as cutting greenhouse gas emissions from existing sources goes, the EPA will be impotent for a long time to come, long enough – I’ll warrant – that global warming will have been thoroughly discredited long before the necessary regulatory structure can be put into place.

One may argue (and some certainly will) that April’s action will have an effect on new projects. Under the EPA’s construction permit program, state and regional agencies have to evaluate control technologies before issuing permits for new facilities. Since greenhouse gases will officially become regulated pollutants in April, this means that greenhouse gas control comes into play for new projects.

However, greenhouse gas control is already in play for new projects and has been for a long time. The Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” project has been forcing the greenhouse gas issue, when it comes to new projects, for years. The organization uses every means available to disrupt and delay new energy projects, including overwhelming the regulatory system with comments that regulators are obligated to respond to and appealing EPA decisions to the court system. Almost without exception, one of the Sierra Club’s primary arguments when it files an appeal is that the local EPA did not properly consider greenhouse gas emissions before issuing a permit.

While there is nothing particularly heart-warming in the thought of regulators ruling on what is or is not an acceptable greenhouse gas control measure, it’s still a hell of a lot better than having judges and environmental extremists make the call. According to the Sierra Club itself, their Beyond Coal project has been successful in killing over 120 proposed new projects in the United States. That’s thousands of megawatts in new, cheap power that never hit the grid. That’s jobs, economic growth and increased energy self-sufficiency; lost forever. As frustrating as the regulatory process is, are we not better off giving the EPA more power to decide on new projects, rather than continuing to allow the Sierra Club to dictate our economic future?

So, when spring arrives and somebody in the old media uses the occasion of a heretofore obscure USEPA regulatory action to wag his finger and warn you that this is the reason we need cap and trade now, remember: you heard it here first. And like most environmental crises, this one is just more smoke and mirrors.

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