EPA Opens Public Hearings on Power Plant Rules

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is holding public hearings on its new rules regulating power plants, and both sides of the debate are coming out in full force.

by Chris Kardish / July 30, 2014
Bob Reid, of Atlanta, wears a shirt protesting the Environmental Protection Agency during a rally in response to an EPA hearing on tougher pollution restrictions, Tuesday, July 29, 2014, in Atlanta. Associated Press/ David Goldman

About 1,600 people across four cities will line up this week to publicly denounce or praise the Environmental Protection Agency’s new rules regulating states' carbon dioxide emissions. 

Still more groups will hold rallies for and against the proposed rules, at times literally across the street from each other. It’s all part of a week-long series of hearings included in the 120-day day comment period that started after the EPA introduced new rules targeting coal-fired power plants in June. 

Cities hosting hearings starting Tuesday include Atlanta, Denver and Washington, D.C. Comment periods are scheduled to take place over more than 12 hours both Tuesday and Wednesday.

Pittsburgh is holding hearings Thursday and Friday. Known for its industrial past and its close proximity to coal-rich West Virginia, Pittsburgh will also play host to competing rallies Thursday. The United Mine Workers of America will be bringing 70 busloads of members and their families from other parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Alabama and elsewhere to rally against the rules at the city’s David L. Lawrence Convention Center, right across the street from a rally in favor of the rules hosted by the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

One group argues climate change requires a “global solution” that won’t hurt jobs because of higher energy prices and the loss of competitiveness. The other argues existing examples of efforts to bring down emissions through cap-and-trade in the Northeast have proven that addressing climate change doesn't have to hurt the economy, and the benefits to public health and the existential dangers posed by climate change demand immediate action. 

That basic dichotomy between economic growth and the environment or health will be debated publicly more than 1,600 times this week. 

The EPA’s proposed rules, which are expected to be finalized in mid-2015, should reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. But each state has an individual target based on a 2012 baseline and assumptions of improved efficiency, capacity to switch to less-harmful sources and decreased demand from users. 

The agency’s method led to great variation among states, from a 14-percent target in Rhode Island to about 72 percent in Washington state. States have to submit a plan for meeting those targets by June 2016, but they can request an extension of up to two years, depending on whether they're forming a multi-state plan. The EPA will design plans for any states that refuse to create their own or submit a plan that the agency doesn’t consider adequate.

Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, which represents pollution control agencies in 42 states, said at the EPA hearing in Washington that the agency’s proposal offers states flexibility and guidance. But he also said those targets may be too stringent in some cases, and other states have asked for more time because of the schedules of their legislatures. "Some states have expressed concerns, that through the stringency of the proposed targets, their compliance flexibility is severely limited," he said. 

Still others have complained that they’re not being rewarded for the steps they’ve already taken, Becker added.

At least nine states are suing the federal government over the rules.  

Hal Quinn, president and CEO of the National Mining Association, a major coal producer, was also among the speakers in D.C. He argued the EPA’s method rests on “implausible” assumptions. He argued shifting that radically to less-harmful natural gas is an “untested idea” that “isn’t based on technical analysis of gas delivery systems.” Other ideas, such as assumptions of increased efficiency, would take a “breakthrough” if they’re to happen consistently each year. 

Margie Alt, the executive director of Environment America, spoke next. Her argument focused not on the economy or even the environmental benefits. She told the audience about a recent trip to Alaska, when her group exploring a national park was held up because mudslides made the road impassable. That’s just one small example, she argued, but the lower 48 states are already experiencing more severe and frequent hurricanes, as well as wild fires and drought. 

“It’s not just in Alaska,” she said. “It’s here in the lower states right now as we speak.”  

This story was originally published by Governing