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Coal, Electricity, Fracking, Carbon Dioxide and the EPA

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 7:30 PM GMT on June 12, 2014

Coal, Electricity, Fracking, Carbon Dioxide and the EPA

Update on 20140623 EPA and carbon dioxide pollution (not specifically related to the clean power initiative discussed below).

When I first started to learn about climate-change policy, coal-burning power plants were always mentioned as logical, perhaps easy, targets for regulation and policy. The reasons are 1) coal is considered the most polluting of the classic fossil fuels: coal, oil, natural gas; 2) power plants are big, stationary emitters. Since they are big and stationary, meaning they don’t move around like cars, they are easy targets to reduce emissions and measure the impact of any regulations. After many years, the recent actions (June 2, 2014) on clean power by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are the most substantive taken by the federal government to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

To be clear, this is an important step. It has been a long time coming. The regulations, advanced by the executive branch of the government, are politically difficult. The direct impact of the new regulations on climate change will be, most likely, small to modest.

It has been a long and frustrating road to get to these regulations. If you follow the thread through the blogs I list at the end, you’ll find that it starts with the Clean Air Act and relies on a 2007 Supreme Court decision that carbon dioxide is a pollutant and that the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide pollution. The Clean Air Act emerged during the 1960s, when air pollution and smog were notorious in the U.S. 1970 is often cited as the year of the Clean Air Act, which is also the time that the EPA became an executive regulatory agency. Richard Nixon is sometimes credited with both the Clean Air Act and forming the EPA. John Dingell had a large role in writing the act. Dingell, retiring this year as the longest-serving member of the U.S. House, is on record that the Clean Air Act is not the right way to address the emissions that cause climate change.

The Clean Air Act is, however, what we have. If you look through my previous analyses, the 2007 Supreme Court decision that allowed the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide provided the only realistic way that we have had in the U.S. for reducing the emission of greenhouse gases. There was one brief flirtation with climate policy in 2009 with the Waxman-Markey bill, but that was never realistically going to happen and was so complex and convoluted it was difficult to imagine Waxman-Markey as more than symbolic.

The EPA is often called a regulatory agency. In general, environmental policy is more desirable than environmental regulation. Policy usually allows business and governments more flexibility in how they meet the goals of the policy. Regulation is more prescriptive and relies on rules and fines for violations. The implementation of the clean-power carbon dioxide pollution standards allows the flexibility for states to choose how they will meet the goals.

It is interesting to think about the opportunities that allowed the use of the EPA to address carbon dioxide pollution at this time. After the EPA was judged to have the power to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, the Bush administration did not move forward. In the first term of the Obama administration, the economic and political costs were too high. The political opposition was bipartisan, with both Democrats and Republicans in energy-producing, especially coal-producing, states opposing the EPA action. This bipartisan opposition remains, though it is either quieter or less consequential, now, in 2014.

Another opportunity that eased the use of the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide pollution comes with increased natural gas production. Hydraulic fracturing has led to cheaper natural gas and increased supplies of oil. Already existing regulations on pollutants such as sulfur (think, acid rain) increase the expense of coal. Therefore, the costs to modernize coal burners and cheaper natural gas were already causing coal to be replaced by natural gas. Therefore, we were on our way to meeting the goals of the new regulation. That makes it simpler to put the seal on a policy that rewards this trend.

There are other opportunities at play. If you look at the numbers, then the goals of regulations are in line with the commitments the U.S. has made in the series of United Nations Conferences of the Parties starting in 2009. These commitments are considered by many to be weak, symbolic and, perhaps, possible. Nevertheless, the new regulations do place the U.S. in the position of increased credibility on the international level. Ben Adler at grist.com does a nice analysis of how Obama’s decision places us at odds with our traditional low energy-efficiency economy friends Australia and Canada. Australia and Canada have been very aggressively distancing themselves from reducing carbon emissions. After the EPA announcement, China quickly followed with they, too, would consider a cap on emissions. It has been my (perhaps crazy) opinion that on the order of the next 10 years, China would make carbon emissions a trade issue. Therefore, the U.S. does obtain advantage with this announcement. Thomas Friedman at the NY Times maintains that the U.S. remains in a leadership position, and if the U.S. does move on climate change, then the world will follow.

What about the politics in the U.S.? By doing this now, it will be implemented before the president leaves office. That will make it more difficult to undo. The announcement focuses more on health impacts and increasing damage from floods and storms than on climate change. There is no doubt that some Democrats, for example Mary Landrieu running for re-election to the Senate, are attacking the regulation. On the other hand, some Republicans, for example Christine Todd Whitman, who are in a position to speak without the encumbrance of partisan politics are talking about the need for new Republican strategies on climate change. There is also the likelihood that President Obama is looking at credibility and the legacy that we have taken a real step on climate change. Plus, in reality the public perception of climate change is only a marginal political issue – it’s usually at the bottom of environmental concerns – the political cost might be low.

The clean power regulations to be managed by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are an important, credible and possible step. To me, while I can calmly describe what seems like the process we use to develop environmental policy, the progress we make is piecemeal and frustrating. We have marched through this process of environmental damage, regulation and policy time and time again. In fact, that’s how the Clean Air Act came to be. It’s only through a broad interpretation of the Clean Air Act that we have found a litigious way forward. This is not a substitute for climate-change policy, which must, ultimately, be integrated into energy systems, land-use policy and behavior.


Over the past few years I have written a number of blogs about energy and role of the EPA. Here are some of the links that would provide more background information.

No Energy Policy and Even Less Climate Policy

We Like to Burn Things

Energy Security: All the Oil We Want

Election Eve: Climate Science and the 2012 Election

Polluting Carbon Dioxide

Greenhouse Gases Climate Change News Climate Change

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.