This news broke last week, but got negligible media coverage that I’m aware of, so I think it’s still fair to call it to people’s attention. If you’re at all concerned about climate change or pollution, or for that matter just wondering how much influence the Obama administration will really be able to exert over environmental policy, this is a very positive sign:
…the U.S. EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board handed down a landmark decision on Thursday that essentially puts a freeze on the construction of as many as 100 new coal-fired power plants around the U.S.
It will now be up to the Obama administration to develop rules on carbon dioxide emissions from such plants.
…the appeals board ruled that the Bush administration had failed to offer a good reason for not regulating greenhouse-gas emissions from the proposed Bonanza plant. The board kicked the permit request back to the regional EPA office in Denver, saying it should reconsider whether the best available pollution controls for CO2 should be required, and stressing that it must adequately explain its decision. “[T]his is an issue of national scope that has implications far beyond this individual permitting proceeding,” the board wrote.
“Essentially what this decision does is it gives the Obama administration a clean slate to decide what our nation’s energy future should be,” said Joanne Spalding, the senior attorney at the Sierra Club who argued the case before the board. “It puts it back in the lap of an Obama EPA to determine how to treat greenhouse-gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, and it gives the opportunity to establish policies that will essentially favor clean energy and impose restrictions on fossil fuels that emit lots of greenhouse gases.”
The utility industry pretty much agrees about the decision’s importance. To quote the AP coverage,
“In essence this is a punt to the Obama administration … All permits in the pipeline are now stymied,” said Jason Hutt, an attorney representing a number of utilities, merchant energy developers and refineries seeking permits. He said it also would affect permits for oil refinery expansion.
If you follow climate change issues at all, you know that coal burning is at the top of the list of greenhouse-gas offenders, worse even than petroleum—emitting not just CO2 but also sulfur dioxide, mercury and more. Its environmental impact is compounded by the health-threatening particulates it puts into the atmosphere, not to mention the landscape-destroying effects of coal mining.
While Obama defused attacks during the campaign by giving lip service to supporting so-called “clean coal” as an alternative to foreign oil, if he’s at all informed on the issue (and I wouldn’t bet against it) he knows that (A) supplies of anthracite, the hardest, cleanest coal found in nature, are vanishingly scarce, and (B) the technologies available for carbon sequestration simply don’t make “clean coal” a viable proposition any time in the foreseeable future, compared to how quickly other (clean, renewable) alternative energy sources can be brought online. Certainly Robert F. Kennedy Jr., reportedly on Obama’s short list for EPA chief, is well aware of this.
Still, as has become clear in the evolving dispute over what sort of last-minute rules and regulations the Bush administration can slip under the wire, and how the incoming administration might be able to step back from them, what goes into effect during this transition period can have a great deal of inertia. This decision prevents Bush’s “see no evil” approach to enforcing the Clean Air Act from gaining any of that inertia. It certainly puts additional momentum behind the push for a comprehensive cap-and-trade regime. As Ms. Spalding summed it up, really without hyperbole, “it gives the Obama administration a clean slate to decide what our nation’s energy future should be.” That’s good news for anyone who plans to continue living on this planet.Tags: climate, energy, environment, EPA, Obama