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Clean Power Plan Redux

Edward A. Reid Jr.
Posted On:
Nov 14, 2017  at  at 6:04 AM
Climate Change

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has signed an order rescinding the Clean Power Plan. This action will trigger an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking regarding potential future emissions reductions and reduction strategies. This action will also likely trigger a plethora of lawsuits by environmental groups; and, perhaps, by several states. However, these lawsuits are likely to be fought out in the courts, rather than resolved through the “sue and settle” approach for which the Obama Administration EPA became famous.

The Clean Power Plan was frequently characterized as “a war against coal”, though it was actually a war against fossil fuel use for electric power generation. The Clean Power Plan established CO2 emissions levels for power plants which could not be met by any commercially available technology for burning coal to produce electricity. However, this approach left the door open for further reductions in the permitted emissions levels, which would eventually have precluded natural gas simple-cycle and combined-cycle gas turbines as well. Natural gas was viewed as a “bridge” fuel, useful to displace coal for power generation until it could then be replaced by renewables.

It is important to recognize that, under President Obama’s Climate Action Plan the Clean Power Plan was the Obama Administration’s primary tool to move the electric sector of the US energy economy to a zero net CO2 emissions by the end of the twenty-first century, if not before. The Obama Administration’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for light duty vehicles and Regulations for Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Commercial Trucks and Buses focused on gasoline and Diesel emissions from the transportation sector. The intent of these regulations was to move the transportation market towards electric vehicles.

The Climate Action Plan also discussed industrial, commercial and residential energy efficiency initiatives, but did not discuss setting emissions standards for those energy markets which would ultimately result in the elimination of fossil fuel use for industrial and commercial processes, or for commercial and residential space heating, water heating, laundry drying, food preparation, etc. However, the ultimate intent was to shift all direct energy use in these sectors to electricity.

Each of these federal actions was part of an overall plan to shift the US energy economy to total reliance on electricity; and, ultimately, to total reliance on electricity generated by renewable energy sources, primarily hydro, geothermal, wind and solar, plus other renewable sources which might become economically competitive over time, including ocean thermal energy conversion, wave energy and dry hot rock geothermal energy.

The Obama Administration used tax policy and direct subsidies to encourage utilities and their customers to adopt renewable technologies and hybrid and electric vehicles. Numerous states supported this effort with tax policies and direct subsidies, as well as indirect subsidies, including net metering of electricity for residential and commercial customers who implemented on-site renewable energy systems, primarily solar photovoltaic electric generating systems.

All of this activity stemmed from the 2009 EPA Endangerment Finding. Recent research has questioned whether the information used to justify the Endangerment Finding was accurate. It is likely that the current Administration will seek to overturn the 2009 Endangerment Finding, though this is perceived to be a very difficult challenge.