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EPA Says Alaska is a Little Bloated: Proposed Guidelines to Reduce Greenhouse Gas

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Image courtesy NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Creative Commons License
Image courtesy NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Creative Commons License

On Monday, June 2, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a preliminary plan to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power generating stations by 30 percent by the year 2030.

In an accompanying press release, the EPA said benefits of the plan include reducing related particulates by over 25 percent, shrinking electricity bills through reduced demand, and preventing up to 6,600 deaths and 150,000 asthma attacks in children. The full document, 645 pages long, added,

The EPA projects that, in 2030, the significant reductions in the harmful carbon pollution and in other air pollution, to which this rule would lead, would result in net climate and health benefits of $48 billion to $82 billion. At the same time, coal and natural gas would remain the two leading sources of electricity generation in the U.S., with each providing more than 30 percent of the projected generation.

The EPA claimed the statutory authority to proceed under the Clean Air Act (CAA). Though the EPA has regulated other chemicals under the CAA, this is the first time it will be used to regulate CO2. This is necessary, the EPA wrote, because “CO2 is the primary [greenhouse gas (GHG)] pollutant, accounting for nearly three-quarters of global GHG emissions and 82 percent of U.S. GHG emissions.”

While the nationwide goal is a 30 percent reduction in CO2, each state’s emission reduction requirement will be different. “[I]n calculating each state’s CO2 goal, the EPA took into consideration the state’s fuel mix, its electricity market and numerous other factors. Thus, each state’s goal reflects its unique conditions,” the EPA wrote in its plan.

The states are free to meet their requirements through their own means of implementation, similar to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). However, they must demonstrate emissions reduction by 2020 and meet the EPA’s assigned final goal by 2030. The states will submit their proposals to the EPA between June 2016 and June 2018. “The EPA then must determine whether to approve or disapprove the plan,” the proposal reads. “If a state does not submit a plan, or if the EPA does not approve a state’s plan, then the EPA must establish a plan for the state.”

Healy Coal Power Plant, image courtesy James Brooks, Creative Commons License

The EPA repeatedly emphasized state “flexibility” in its proposal, even allowing for multi-state plans. Further suggesting a desire to tread lightly, the EPA wrote, “In the event that a state becomes concerned about its ability to meet the goal that the EPA promulgates for it, the state may submit to the EPA a petition for reconsideration, if that petition is based on relevant information not available during the comment period.”

Gov. Sean Parnell did not establish a state-run health care exchange under the ACA, allowing the Federal government to run Alaska’s exchange instead. An independent Alaska carbon reduction plan may depend on whether or not Parnell is re-elected in November.

Alaska emitted 1,351 pounds of CO2 per net Megawatt-hour from fossil-fuel fired power plants in 2012. The EPA’s goal for Alaska is to reduce that amount to 1,097 pounds in 2020, then 1,003 pounds by 2030, a difference of about 26 percent. Under an alternate plan proposed by the EPA with a shorter timeline, and hence less stringent requirements, Alaska would need to reduce average emissions to 1,170 pounds by 2020 and 1,131 pounds by 2025. This alternate plan, the EPA projects, “will achieve emission reductions equal to 23 percent below 2005 level in 2025.” Both plans are subject to public comment.

There are five Alaska plants affected by the proposal: Healy, Beluga, Southcentral Power Plant, George M Sullivan Generation Plant 2, and Nikiski Co-Generation.

The proposed impact on Alaska is relatively benign. While Alaska’s reduction requirement is less than the national goal of 30 percent, states like Texas and Louisiana have targets well above that number. Coal states, like Kentucky and West Virginia, have the least onerous goals. Though Indiana is one of the states least impacted, Gov. Mike Pence declared,

These proposed regulations will be devastating for Hoosier workers and families. They will cost us in higher electricity rates, in lost jobs, and in lost business growth due to a lack of affordable, reliable electricity. Indiana will oppose these regulations using every means available.

Pence’s statement signals yet another multi-state lawsuit, which, based on the Parnell administration’s record, Alaska can be expected to join. The state sued the federal government over the Affordable Care Act and joined another lawsuit to block the cleanup of Chesapeake Bay.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has publicly criticized the EPA’s plan, saying that “the president has decided to push ahead and propose a sweeping new regulation on our still-weak economy.” Congressman Don Young (R-Alaska) similarly criticized the plan, calling it an “economy killer.” Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) was more circumspect, saying merely, “We must protect consumers along the way.”

The EPA disputes claims that the new proposal will cost jobs. “In 2020,” it wrote in its report, “we project job growth of 25,900 to 28,000 job-years in the power production and fuel extraction sectors, and we project an increase of 78,000 jobs in the demand-side energy efficiency sector.”

Critics cannot claim they have been surprised by the EPA’s move. In August 2013, the EPA created an overview presentation that was made into a webinar. The presentation had been viewed over 5,600 times by May 2014. Additionally, the agency held four national teleconferences and accepted pre-development comments through email and online forms. They received over 2,000 emails prior to the publication of the proposal.

Some have characterized the move as a “war on coal.” The EPA says that its proposal is just a reflection of the changing energy dynamic. It writes,

In 2025, the average age of the coal-fired generating fleet is projected to be 49 years old, and 20 percent of units would be more than 60 years old if they remained in operation at that time. Therefore, even in the absence of additional environmental regulation, states and utilities can be expected to be, and already are, making plans to address the changes necessitated by the aging of current assets and infrastructure.

Coal-fired power plants are the largest stationary emitters of CO2. Alaska generates ten percent of its electricity via coal, while

Susitna River, near Hatcher Pass. Image courtesy Keltron, Creative Commons License

the bulk, 52 percent, is generated using natural gas. Hydropower accounts for an additional 23 percent.

The EPA’s plan encourages renewable energy through “best practice” recommendations that would be considered as part of a given state’s reduction portfolio. In 2012, discounting hydropower, Alaska generated one percent of its electricity through renewables. The EPA recommendation is to increase that to two percent, or under the shorter alternate timeline, to maintain at one percent.

However, the EPA is asking for public comment on whether hydropower should be included in renewable energy calculations for the plan. If it were, it could have an impact in Alaska. The state has a high capacity for hydropower generation. Expectations for the state could be increased with its inclusion, which could lead to renewed calls for the Susitna-Watana dam project. This would disappoint Alaska environmentalists otherwise onboard with the carbon reduction strategy.

Despite the EPA encouraging an increase in renewable energy and recommending an increase in demand-side energy efficiency, some environmentalists are displeased that the 30 percent goal is based on 2005 emissions figures. Current emission levels are about ten percent lower than they were in 2005, meaning the new targets are easier to hit by back dating.

There are mixed reactions among interested parties to the plan, but there is scientific consensus that something must be done to reduce carbon emissions. The EPA specifically mentioned the impact on Native Alaskans, writing that “communities are likely to experience disruptive impacts, including shifts in the range or abundance of wild species crucial to their livelihoods and well-being” due to climate change.

Whether or not the EPA’s proposal is the proper method to address atmospheric carbon is in large part up to the public. There will be a 120-day comment period on the plan, a link to which can be found here. The proposal will not be finalized until June of 2015.