Words That Utility Pollution Apologists Dare Not Utter

I usually don’t bother responding to utility lobbyists’ air pollution talking points. Much less re-publish their propaganda, thereby adding to the abuse of reason, facts, and good sense in the world today.

But I’m making an exception today, because the latest talking points from the air pollution apologists over at the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council (ERCC) are so deliciously revealing that it merits taking a few bites out of their spiel.

Yesterday NRDC petitioned EPA to abandon an extremely harmful, illegal Clean Air Act rulemaking that the Bush administration is pursuing as a parting gift to the utility industry before the administration leaves office early next year. So ERCC issued talking points in response to NRDC’s petition – explaining why some dirty utilities desperately want the administration to issue that rulemaking. And those talking points inadvertently revealed the dirty face of the Bush administration-utility industry agenda better than if I had described their position for them. 

These competing documents concerned Bush EPA rulemaking proposals issued in 2005 and 2007 that effectively would exempt all of the nation’s existing coal-fired power plants – the country’s largest industrial sources of smog and soot pollution – from an important Clean Air Act program called “new source review” (NSR). I have covered EPA’s destructive NSR rulemaking in a prior post

Readers of this blog will recall that on July 11th, the federal appellate court in Washington, D.C. overturned the Bush administration’s “Clean Air Interstate Rule” (CAIR), which applied to power plants in the eastern U.S. In February, this same court also overturned the Bush administration’s “Clean Air Mercury Rule” (CAMR), which had established an unlawful cap-and-trade program for mercury emissions from power plants nationwide, delaying even its inadequate measures for nearly two decades.

CAIR and CAMR were always just the regulatory versions of pieces of the “Clear Skies” power plant legislation that the Bush administration had attempted unsuccessfully to ram through Congress from 2003 to 2005, a topic I also covered in an earlier post. Crucially, the destructive NSR rulemaking that EPA has been pursuing since 2005 and threatens to finalize by the end of this administration is also just the regurgitated version of the NSR power plant exemption in the failed Clear Skies bill.

So it should come as no surprise that CAIR and CAMR were the central rationales for EPA's adoption of the deregulatory NSR exemption for power plants. EPA’s argument was that CAIR and CAMR do enough to clean up power plants. . . eventually, by the mid-2020’s, and as much as the administration was willing to require, even if that leaves most power plants in the country lacking advanced pollution controls for smog and soot. So why do we need a protective NSR program, the Bush EPA argued?

Of course, EPA never has provided a coherent response to the following uncomfortable facts:

  • that CAIR did not apply to power plants in half the country;
  • that CAMR only covered mercury and not the air pollutants covered by NSR;
  • that under EPA’s substitute strategy for the statutory NSR mandate – that is, by relying on CAIR, CAMR and another rule -- an astonishing 68% of 1041 total power plant units still would lack advanced pollution controls for SO2 or NOx or both in 2020, based on EPA’s own data
  • that according to EPA’s own analysis, the NSR rulemaking would cause over 300 counties across the country to experience county-wide SO2 or NOx pollution increases from power plants, including single county SO2 pollution increases of over 34,000 tons per year; and
  • that EPA’s own enforcement officials concluded that the proposed NSR rule would allow a single power plant from an actual case study to increase SO2 emissions by over 13,000 tons per year.

But let’s put aside those irritating points for present purposes.

NRDC petitioned EPA Administrator Johnson yesterday to abandon the NSR rulemaking following the court vacaturs of CAIR and CAMR. We pointed out that with EPA unable to achieve the air pollution reductions from power plants that the agency had been counting on under those two rules, there is no sound basis for adopting the purely deregulatory NSR rulemaking that would allow power plant emissions to increases by many, many tens of thousands of tons each year by EPA’s own reckoning. In the NSR rulemaking, EPA’s projections about local and national SO2 and NOx emissions, average emissions rates, control device installations, and public health and environmental impacts all were based upon the assumption of CAIR and CAMR’s operation – both of which have now been struck down in court.

We shall see what EPA does. In the meantime, the response to NRDC’s petition by lobbyists for ERCC is refreshingly revealing about the polluting agenda of at least ERCC’s utility company members.

But first a word about the ERCC: when you Google “Electric Reliability Coordinating Council,” the first hit pretty much says it all: “Energy industry coalition opposing the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) enforcement of New Source Review (NSR) for upgraded power plants.” ERCC is comprised of a small number of utility companies, including the Southern Company -- the dirtiest or second dirtiest power plant company in the country, depending on the pollutant, based on 2006 emissions. Southern, not coincidentally, also has been a longstanding defendant in NSR enforcement actions by EPA since 1999. ERCC is housed out of the Washington, D.C. office of the law firm, Bracewell & Giuliani, home to Jeff Holmstead, the former Bush EPA political official who headed EPA’s air office from 2001-2005, and was largely responsible for CAMR, CAIR, Clear Skies and the administration’s persistent attacks on the NSR program.

Turning to the ERCC talking points. On five different occasions, the ERCC talking points urge adoption of the NSR rulemaking to improve the reliability, efficiency and safety of power plants.  The order of these words changes, but these are the recurring talking points.

What’s so deliciously revealing about this spin is the words that never appear, the words that utility pollution apologists dare not utter, the improvements that the pending NSR rulemaking will not deliver: reduced air pollution, better air quality, improved public health, greater environmental protections.

The pending NSR rulemaking will allow and result in more air pollution, and even utility industry lobbyists cannot bring themselves to claim otherwise. Not one word in the nearly 700-word talking points claims that this NSR rulemaking would reduce air pollution and protect public health better than current law. Because that would be just plain wrong.   

Indeed, the practices that the ERCC talking points promote – reliability, efficiency and safety – are code for more highly polluting activities for which utilities wish to escape control. They know that these worthy practices can be pursued under current law, so long as significant pollution increases from these activities are managed or if pollution simply does not increase. But the aim is to undertake these more highly polluting practices at the expense of public health, air quality and the environment by escaping responsibility for cleaning up the pollution increases.

A neat trick if you can get away with it. So keep your eyes on EPA to see if Administrator Johnson helps the utility industry and Bush administration get away with it before leaving office – even if EPA’s flawed, centerpiece air quality rules (CAMR and CAIR) are no longer in place to partially deal with the pollution increases that the NSR rule will deliver. And in the meantime, keep your ears open to the utility industry's and administration’s pollution propaganda, and listen especially closely for those clean words they dare not utter.