The EPA’s game plan to comprehensively tackle pollution from the coal power industry began to take shape almost immediately after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, according to newly released documents.
In early February 2021, senior EPA-appointed officials briefed White House officials on a strategy that would leverage a variety of laws and programs to reduce power plant emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants. hazardous, reduce toxic water discharges and deal with massive amounts of coal ash. piled up in landfills and storage ponds across the country, according to a slide deck prepared for the meeting.
If Republicans regain control of one or both houses of Congress in next month’s midterm elections, that plan could attract further scrutiny. GOP lawmakers have accused the administration of being biased against coal-fired power generation and are eager to watch the EPA.
Entitled “Electricity Sector Strategy: Climate, Public Health, Environmental Justice. The Building Blocks,” the slide deck begins with the statement that “the EPA has a responsibility through multiple media to address the environmental effects of the energy sector.” It then alludes to more than half a dozen pathways, including agency standards for air toxics and greenhouse gases, effluent limitation guidelines, and coal ash disposal requirements.
He notes that some options were national in scope, while others – such as regional haze reduction borders, which typically target older coal-fired power plants – would only cover a “subset” of units. of production. The bridge also references a provision of the Clean Air Act that the EPA has sought to use to nudge utilities away from coal as a fuel source, only to hit a roadblock this summer at the Supreme Court. (climate wireJuly, 1st).
While EPA Administrator Michael Regan argued in March that the power sector was already heading in the direction embedded in EPA’s strategy, the agency’s coordinated approach has also been seen in some circles as a fallback in anticipation of the High Court’s 6-3 ruling in the known case. as West Virginia vs. EPA.
As the effects of climate change become increasingly severe, power plants are the nation’s second largest source of heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions, ranking behind the transportation sector alone.
At the Feb. 4, 2021 meeting, EPA Chief of Staff Dan Utech and Acting Air Bureau Chief Joe Goffman were listed as attendees, according to Goffman’s schedule. For the White House, Gina McCarthy, then National Climate Advisor; his deputy at the time, Ali Zaidi; Maggie Thomas, chief of staff of the climate office; and Sonia Aggarwal, Climate Policy Advisor, were among the attendees.
The subject of the meeting was “ALI & GINA: Power Sector Meeting”, according to the records, and presented the following “email background”.
“Dan and Joe, we would like to schedule a 60-minute discussion on the electricity sector on Thursday or Friday,” the calendar entry said, adding that “topics to be covered” included criteria pollutants, limitation guidelines Effluent, Coal Ash and Section 111(b) of the Clean Air Act.
The calendar entry showed a PowerPoint presentation attached. E&E News filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the document, titled “EGU Strategy – v4,” and obtained the slide deck in response from the EPA.
It’s unclear how the agency specifically offered to pursue the options outlined in the slide deck. Most of the presentation has been redacted under a FOIA exemption that allows agency employees to protect internal deliberations from public disclosure.
Working “in partnership with the Congress”?
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (RW.Va.), a ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, also requested the slide deck. In “Questions for the Record” of Goffman’s Senate confirmation hearing earlier this year, she asked him to provide the PowerPoint presentation and all other documents shared with White House staff in the development. of “EGU Strategy” – EGU short for Electricity Generating Units or Power Plants.
“As the Agency engages in the rulemaking process, it is inappropriate for us to comment on or share internal deliberative documents being developed,” Goffman said.
Peter Hoffman, a spokesperson for Capito, told E&E News that the EPA shared the slide deck with the senator in June, but only after the agency said it was produced for FOIA.
Hoffman also said Capito was very concerned about the EPA’s energy sector strategy and referenced a Feb. 8 letter the senator sent to Regan.
“Despite promises to be transparent and to ‘work in partnership with Congress,’ the EPA appears to be planning to use overbroad interpretations of several federal environmental laws to target affordable and reliable power generation sources,” Capito said in the letter. “Even more concerning, many of the tools the administration would potentially use would be for purposes not defined or even mentioned in their respective statutes.”
It is also unclear whether the approach outlined at the start of 2021 has since undergone significant changes.
Goffman referred questions about that score and other points to the EPA press office. In a statement, spokesman Tim Carroll did not provide specific answers, but said Biden “from day one” had “promised bold action to tackle the climate crisis, protect people’s health and bring economic benefits to all”. EPA is delivering on that commitment and moving forward with the urgency the climate crisis demands.
McCarthy, who resigned from his White House post last month, could not be reached for comment. A spokesperson for the White House climate office declined to comment when contacted for this story.
Officials from the Edison Electric Institute, a utility trade group, have not seen the slide deck, spokesman Brian Reil said in an email. The organization “will continue to discuss policy issues with the EPA as part of our ongoing efforts to collaborate with the agency as it works to develop comprehensive regulations for the electricity sector,” said Reel.
The group has sided with the EPA in the Supreme Court litigation, for example, and supports the agency’s attempt to restore the legal basis for the air toxics regulations that were struck down under the administration of former President Donald Trump.
His position is more complicated on the EPA’s proposal to further toughen ‘good neighbor’ requirements under a Clean Air Act provision that prohibits state regulators from allowing industry emissions that contribute downwind smog problems outside their borders (green wire, March 11). While supporting the framework for the emissions trading scheme, the institute wants changes to some provisions that directly affect the electricity sector, according to comments on the proposal submitted in June.
E&E News reported on the EPA’s power sector initiative in January of this year, which helped trigger Capito’s next letter to the agency (climate wireJanuary 24).
Last March, Regan publicly announced the strategy, presenting it as an effort to keep the electricity industry on a path to greater reliance on natural gas and renewable energy sources. “This is a pivotal moment for the industry, and the EPA is ready to seize it,” he said at an energy conference in Houston (green wireMarch 10).
It’s not unprecedented for the EPA to seek to reduce overall pollution from specific industrial sectors, said Bob Perciasepe, a former deputy administrator with the agency who highlighted the “Common Sense” initiative launched under the former President Bill Clinton.
The Biden plan has so far been slow to have any tangible impact. As the United States economy began to recover from the shocks of the Covid-19 pandemic last year, greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector increased by more than 6% per year. compared to 2020.
And the EPA’s timeline to restore the legal basis for airborne toxics regulations has been unexpectedly slowed after the White House blocked publication of the proposal for months, apparently over fears of putting angered Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Joe Manchin (DW.Va.), whose support the administration was then courting his climate and social spending bill (green wire, February 10).
But Perciasepe pointed to the long-term incentives for renewable energy use in the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act as reason to think the trajectory of emissions will now change. While it’s “hard to say” that there have been any meaningful cuts in the almost two years that Biden has now been in office, he added, some of these policies “are really going to start to make a difference.” difference”.