The North Carolina Response to EPA’s Clean Power Plan Rule

July 26, 2015.  In one way, the proposed  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule to limit carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power plants  — expected to be final in August — looks like a typical air quality rule. The Clean Power Plan rule sets state by state reduction goals for a pollutant (CO2) from a particular set of of sources (electric generating facilities).  But the rule takes an unusual and  innovative approach to meeting those goals. The rule identifies  four components  (or “building blocks” in EPA rule-speak ) of a plan to reduce CO2 emissions associated with power generation : 1. reducing power plant CO2 emissions (the traditional Clean Air Act approach); 2. energy efficiency measures; 3. increased  electric generation from renewable energy sources;  and 4. transition of electric generation facilities from coal to natural gas.   In effect, the rule aims to lower CO2 emissions per kilowatt hour used and allows the  states to take credit for CO2 emissions avoided through increased energy efficiency and by shifting electric generation to energy sources with low or no CO2 emissions.

The proposed EPA rule requires each state to submit a plan for meeting its CO2 reduction target by June 30, 2016. The state plan can rely on any or all of the four “building blocks” in the EPA rule; it can also include measures that fall outside those categories as long as the plan achieves the CO2 reduction target for regulated electric generation facilities. If a state fails to develop a plan, EPA can create a federal plan for the state.  An earlier post  provides more detail on the  proposed federal rule.

The McCrory administration has opposed the Clean Power Plan rule in  written comments and in testimony before Congressional committees. In part,  the administration has argued that the Clean Air Act does not authorize EPA to issue  a rule that relies on measures — such as energy efficiency and increased reliance on renewable energy — that go beyond limiting  pollutant emissions from regulated power plants.  Last week,  the practical implications of  that   position became more clear when DENR  Secretary Donald van der Vaart  told a Senate committee that  the McCrory administration intends to resist the flexibility offered under the federal rule and submit a CO2 reduction plan  based entirely on requiring additional CO2 emission reductions at  power plants.

The Secretary’s comments came  as a state Senate committee debated House Bill 571, which requires DENR to develop  a state CO2 reduction plan with the participation of the public and the electric utilities. DENR did not support House Bill 571, but the bill passed the House with a bipartisan majority and the support of  the state’s major electric utilities and environmental organizations. Last Wednesday, the  Senate Agriculture and Environment Committee took up a substitute draft of  H 571 that would prohibit DENR from taking any action or expending any state resources on development of a CO2 reduction plan until all legal challenges to the federal rule had been resolved or until July 1, 2016 (whichever came later).  Asked to comment on the proposed substitute bill,   Secretary van der Vaart  indicated that DENR  would prefer to submit a CO2 reduction plan by June 30, 2016 as required under the federal rule — but a plan based entirely on reducing  power plant emissions.

Based on the Secretary’s statement, the McCrory administration response to the Clean Power Plan rule puts the state in a strange place:

♦  DENR has argued for an interpretation of  the Clean Air Act that would force the federal rule to be more rigid and offer the state less flexibility to meet CO2 reduction targets.   (A number of environmental law experts disagree with this narrow interpretation of EPA authority; the issue will likely have to be settled in court.)

♦  Based on this narrow interpretation of EPA authority, DENR intends to develop a state CO2 reduction plan that relies entirely on further reducing  CO2 emissions from power plants even though existing  state policies have North Carolina on a path to achieve much (if not all)  of the necessary reductions through increased renewable energy generation, greater energy efficiency, and  transition of power plants from coal to natural gas.  Although DENR has not provided an analysis of the state’s ability to meet the state’s CO2 reduction target based on those existing policies, others have. You can find one (an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council)  here.

♦  Relying  entirely on lowering power plant emissions could  make meeting the CO2 reduction target more difficult and more costly for electric utilities and consumers. Again, DENR has not provided a comparative analysis of the cost of relying entirely on power plant pollution controls versus  a comprehensive CO2 plan that takes credit for energy efficiency measures, renewable energy generation and transitioning power plants from coal to natural gas.

Most states have started planning to meet the  CO2 reduction targets. Even in coal-producing states where political opposition to the EPA rule tends to be highest,  state air quality agencies have begun sketching out CO2 reduction scenarios in case the rule survives the expected legal challenges. Only one state — Oklahoma — has prohibited its environmental agency from developing a plan. A recent Washington Post story  reported that even coal-dominated states like Kentucky seem confident of meeting the  CO2 reduction target thanks in part to recent investments in renewable energy generation. It isn’t clear that any state other than North Carolina has decided to develop a plan based solely on CO2 reductions at coal-fired power plants.

Which leaves something of a public policy mystery. A state with significant advantages in renewable energy, energy efficiency and already on the road to transitioning power plants from coal to natural gas seems to have settled on a policy that throws those advantages away. Instead of working with electric utilities, consumers and environmental organizations to develop the most cost-effective  CO2 reduction plan for the state, DENR intends  to unilaterally develop a plan based entirely on reducing power plant emissions.  It isn’t clear why or what that policy choice could cost the state.

Note: The Senate committee approved the substitute draft of House Bill 571 on Wednesday, but offered to continue talking to DENR about the content of the bill. The bill was pulled off the Senate calendar last Thursday; when the bill  reappears on the Senate calendar, there may be amendments as a result of the ongoing discussions.

Update: The original post has been revised to make it clear that state CO2 reduction plans can also rely on measures other than those covered by the  four “building blocks” identified in the EPA rule.