EPA Snubs California and Stonewalls Senate

Expect some sparks in Washington today. EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson will be sizzling in the hot seat as he tries to explain to U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee why he overruled his staff in denying California a waiver allowing it to regulate carbon tailpipe emissions.

Adding insult to injury, the EPA also heavily censored the internal documents provided to the committee in advance of today’s hearings.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who chairs the committee, is not in a good mood. "This unbelievable brush-off by the EPA only makes me more determined to get to the truth."

EPA staff advised Johnson in writing last October that “California continues to have compelling and extraordinary conditions," such as wildfires and coastal cities at risk from climate change that would justify a waiver allowing it to develop its own regulations.

This same document correctly predicted that California would sue the EPA if the waiver was turned down and that the federal agency would be “likely to lose”. Staffers also told their boss that if the waiver was granted, the EPA would likely instead be sued by automakers, but the EPA would almost certainly win in court.

Interestingly, records show that auto executives met with Dick Cheney and provided documents to the White House arguing against the waiver request.

What’s at stake goes far beyond California or cars. Fifteen other states are so frustrated with lack of leadership from Washington that they are planning to follow California’s lead and adopt much stricter emissions standards than those proposed by Bush – assuming that California is eventually granted a waiver from EPA.

Of course the reason that California, and the other states representing 150 million Americans, need to write their own legislation is because Washington is doing almost nothing about regulating CO2.

Last year, the EPA committed to make a formal determination by the end of 2007 on whether carbon emissions threaten public health or welfare – the first step in regulating CO2 under the Clean Air Act.

Considering that Johnson is a Bush appointment, it is not surprising that the deadline came and went without any action. Regulating CO2 as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act is can of worms the oil lobby would prefer to stay firmly closed.

The growing rebellion by State governments fighting for meaningful carbon regulation gets more interesting every day. A letter sent yesterday by California and seventeen other states and local governments stated that "the EPA is unreasonably delaying" the procedural steps necessary for issuing regulations under the Clean Air Act..

"The Artic is melting faster than ever before, yet the EPA stubbornly refuses to do its job," said California Attorney General Brown.

Keep on eye on today’s Senate hearings. Mr. Johnson could be in for a very unpleasant day.

This piece ran nowhere.


The Expensive Myth of Clean Coal

“Clean coal” is a term that is getting a lot of coverage these days but the moniker makes as much sense as calling the Beverly Hillbillies "highbrow".

As a fuel source, coal is as filthy as they come – emitting about 67% more CO2 per unit of energy than natural gas.

The process of coal mining itself also releases large amounts of trapped methane gas into the atmosphere. The US Geological Survey estimates that there is an incredible 700 trillion cubic feet of methane trapped in domestic coal deposits. Methane is twenty one times as powerful as greenhouse gas as CO2, and according to the IPCC accounts for 9% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

There is so much trapped methane in coal deposits that it is more profitable in many areas to extract “coal bed methane” by surface drilling and leave the coal in the ground. The much more common method of conventional coal mining simply allows this dangerous gas to escape into our atmospheric fishbowl.

But climate change is big news and coal is big business. As a result there is a vigorous PR campaign to try and rehabilitate the public image of the coal.

Enter a $1.8 billion project in Illinois to build a “clean coal” research facility to showcase emission-free coal power. They plan to capture the CO2 from the coal combustion and inject it deep into underlying rock formations. So what’s that catch?

Even if this project was a success when it is finally slated to go online 2012, it remains only one single plant and a small one at that. There are now about 600 conventional coal plants in the US burning on average about 1.4 million tons of coal each every year.
There are also over 150 fully polluting coal plants on the drawing board in the US.

About 40% of greenhouse gas emissions in the US come from coal. Throwing over $1 billion of taxpayer’s dollars towards a single token “clean coal” plant sounds like a very expensive Potemkin village for benefit of the coal lobby.

It is also telling that the US government was unsuccessful in getting their industry partners to pick up more of the tab for this boondoggle. Spending that kind of money on a plant that would only supply energy to 150,000 homes is an excellent example of dubious economics to this unproven technology.

At only 245 MW generating capacity and a cost of $1.8 billion, this so called clean coal plant would be about twice as expensive as building equivalent wind generating facilities and slightly more than solar – both of which are guaranteed to produce zero emissions forever.

Lastly, even if carbon capture technology would work, it does nothing to mitigate methane emissions from coal mining.

Coal is dirty. Don’t buy the whitewash.
This was published on Desmog Blog on January 9, 2008