September 20 and 21 marked business-as-usual for House Republicans as they attempted to weaken the Environmental Protection Agency’s powers to protect human health and the environment by regulating emissions of greenhouse gases. The Energy and Power Subcommittee held the twenty-ninth hearing on this issue – this time with a focus on H.R. 6172, the “American Energy Initiative” (AEI). Then on September 21, the House passed the “Stop the War on Coal Act” (H.R. 3409), which Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee called the “single worst anti-environment bill to be considered in the House this Congress.”
Kate Sheppard reported in Mother Jones (“House Passes Extra-Terrible Pro-Coal Bill Before Heading Home“) on September 21:
On Friday [September 21], the House passed a monumentally terrible bill that … would undo many laws—old and new—dealing with coal.
The “Stop the War on Coal Act” (H.R. 3409) would take away the power to regulate a lot of things—mountaintop-removal coal mining, greenhouse gas emissions, coal ash disposal, mercury and air toxins. Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee called the legislation the “single worst anti-environment bill to be considered in the House this Congress.”
It’s just all kinds of bad—throwing out many rules dealing with coal and preventing the EPA and the Department of Interior from regulating in the future. That includes both coal mining and coal burning in power plants. The House passed the bill by a vote of 233 to 175, which included 19 Democrats who voted for it as well. This is the last vote the House will take before the election, which is no coincidence. The bill isn’t going pass; it’s only meant to be an instrument to bludgeon Obama and other Democrats, which has been very clear from Republicans’ remarks.
Greenwire reported (September 21, by subscription) on House passage of the coal legislation:
The legislation will be the House’s final action before leaving Capitol Hill to campaign for the November elections with coal having become a significant talking point in Ohio and other key states.
Coal boosters are making the most of the debate. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney this week released ads criticizing Obama’s coal policies. And today the Republican National Committee released a 25-page report on the issue. …
Asked about the chances of upper chamber passage, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said, “No.”
On the Energy and Power Subcommittee hearing on September 20, Dan Lashof of the Natural Resources Defense Council countered representatives of the coal industry and ‘skeptic’ scientist John Christy:
[Hearing archived webcast, written testimony, background memo, and H.R. 6172 text here]
The main aim of the “American Energy Initiative” bill is “to prohibit the EPA from finalizing new performance standards under section 111 of the Clean Air Act (CAA).” Specifically, the bill would abolish the EPA’s ability to finalize these standards for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from new fossil fuel power plants until such a time Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is both technologically feasible and commercially economical. In other words, no such emission standard for CO2 could be set without the appropriate technology already in place to meet these requirements.
What exactly is this pesky section 111 of the Clean Air Act? Why do these representatives, essentially all from coal-powered states, want to see it repealed? Under this section of the CAA, the EPA is authorized to develop technology-based standards called New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) for a variety of specific source categories. The proposed rule will include all future fossil fuel energy plants, including, but not limited to coal and natural gas.
The goal of this change is to curtail the emissions of greenhouse gases by “requiring all new electric generating units to meet an output-based standard of 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour.” The figure is based on the current emissions by Natural Gas Combined Cycle (NGCC) power plants that are becoming the predominant electric generation technology for new power plants in the United States. Even without this new EPA rule, due to the low price of natural gas, NGCCs are expected to overtake coal as the lion’s share of electric energy production.
“The war on coal has to stop,” charged Rep. Whitfield (R-KY) in a statement at the hearing. It’s the same rhetoric we’ve heard time and time again — shouting about current job and economic losses even though the EPA proposed rule would not affect existing coal plants.
Industry representatives told the committee that the technology of CCS simply isn’t there and is not viable at on the commercial scale. Robert Hilton, Vice President at Power Technologies for Government Affairs said, “the technology is being developed and works, but will not be ready until 2017 at the earliest.” Although companies have invested billions in research and development on reducing carbon emissions, CCS still has not been proven on the commercial level. Mark McCullough, Executive Vice President of Generation at American Electric Power, added that “NSPS is impractical and would put added pressure on customers in the future.”
Accompanying the arguments of coal industry executives was the testimony of Dr. John Christy, Director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama. Christy, who characterized himself as one of the few “hardcore climate scientists” as defined by “building scientific data sets from scratch to answer climate variability,” has staunchly opposed the idea that increased atmospheric concentration of CO2 has led to any real change in global temperature. He is among a small group of “experts” who are routinely called upon by Republicans for their minority views on the subject of climate change (Romm 2011). He asserts that the heat waves, drought, flooding, extreme weather, the thousands of climate records set this year, and every negative associated with climate change can be chalked up to “climate variability.” It has happened before and it will happen again, he says.
Christy stated that 38 of the most recent climate model simulations don’t “pass the test” when compared to the observations of the real world and should not be the basis for decision-making. But, while climate simulations can’t be expected to be 100% accurate, the models have been able to successfully reproduce temperatures since 1900 globally, by land, in the air and the ocean.
What about the record Arctic ice melting this summer? Christy’s answer: “When compared to the area of sea ice around Antarctica…the temperature is not increasing and the sea ice is not decreasing.” Christy dodges the record low in the Arctic and points to the South Pole as evidence towards his point. This is misleading.
While the amount of sea ice has increased around Antarctica due to ozone depletion and other factors, the amount of land ice has steadily decreased and is decreasing at an accelerating rate, which has implications for sea level rise. Also, several studies have noted that mean water temperature around Antarctica has increased faster than the global average. In any case, the two poles are completely different systems with different factors at work.
Testimony by Dan Lashof, Program Director of Climate and Clean Air at the Natural Resources Defense Council, provided a counterpoint to Christy’s. “Carbon pollution is dangerous,” he said. Lashof shows this figure of the minimum Arctic sea ice coverage since satellite recording in 1979 as evidence of global warming. “The fact is, what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic, it affects the energy balance of the entire Earth,” he said.
Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) painted a different picture of the anti-EPA hearings. “Yet another time, yet another day, yet another bill being introduced…that will attempt to roll back the progress the American people have made and block and delay EPA rules that are designed to make our air, land, and water cleaner,” he said. Describing the Republican bill under consideration as a “missed opportunity,” he said the American Energy Initiative represents hundreds of hours of endless debate that will produce no meaningful progress on our nation’s energy policy. Such bills passed by the Republican-controlled House are “dead on arrival” when sent to the Senate and are a “waste of our time.”
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) continued in this vein, saying “It is not the government’s fault if a utility decides it’s cheaper to use natural gas than coal, that’s what we call economics. We all should want to have [the technology of CCS], but the industry has no incentive to develop that technology.” Waxman said, “This Republican House has proved to be the most anti-environmental in the history of Congress. Voted 47 times to block action on climate change. The science has been clear, just look at all the signs of climate change occurring around us…that had been predicted for years.”
Defenders of the EPA’s New Source Performance Standards say the new rule is reasonable and will create added incentive to develop Carbon Capture and Storage technology. John Thompson, Director of the Fossil Transition Project at the Clean Air Task Force, testified “that without CCS it will be difficult if not impossible to avoid the worst aspects of climate change. The value of CCS goes beyond reducing emissions…capture of CO2 could be used to expand domestic oil production through EOR [Enhanced Oil Recovery].” Contrary to testimony from coal executives, Thompson said that coal power plants are already being built that will utilize CCS at scale and meet and surpass the NSPS standards. These two plants would then sell the captured CO2 for oil companies in Texas for EOR.
Lashof said that economics, even in the absence of the new performance standards for CO2 , has dictated “that we are meeting our electricity needs through energy efficiency, expansion of renewable energy,…and natural gas, which is much less expensive. Congress can no more repeal those rules of economics than they can repeal the physics and chemistry that is driving climate change.”
Lashof disagreed with Rep. McKinley (R-WV), lead sponsor of H.R. 6172, that the there is not enough scientific consensus to say CO2 is affecting climate change. “I don’t agree that the science is up in the air. The National Academy of Sciences has said that the idea that CO2 is contributing to climate change is as well proven as gravity and that is a strong basis for making policy,” he said.
Republicans at the hearing once again sent a clear message that if they do not succeed they will try, try, and try again to deregulate the EPA rather than deal with the reality than CO2 emissions must be regulated and reduced.