Whitfield Bill Puts Big Coal in Charge of Carbon Pollution Standards

Trick or treat! There is a new anti-EPA bill knocking at our door, courtesy of Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY).  The authors know its aim is so deeply unpopular that they have outfitted it with a smiling mask to hide what it actually does.  Released as Halloween approaches, the Whitfield draft masquerades as “instructions” to EPA for writing standards for carbon pollution from coal power plants.  But under the mask, the bill repeals current Clean Air Act authority to set standards for America’s biggest carbon polluters and puts EPA in handcuffs and leg-irons, handing the keys to Big Coal and the Tea Party ideologues in the House.  The bill should be titled the “Clean Air Never Act.”

Here is a nutshell summary of the bill:

  • It repeals all current and pending EPA proposals for power plant carbon pollution standards.
  • It bars anything but do-nothing standards for new coal plants, creating an impossible test before EPA could go further.
  • It repeals EPA’s authority to issue carbon pollution guidelines for existing dirty power plants and requires a new Act of Congress before any national regulation of existing plant carbon pollution would be allowed.

Under the Mask—the gory details:

The bill would repeal all current proposed and pending standards issued by EPA to limit carbon pollution from coal and gas power plants and bar EPA from issuing any future rules until certain tests are passed.  But the authors borrow a trick as old as ancient myth by setting up an impossible task before EPA would be allowed to act.

EPA has proposed a carbon pollution standard for new coal plants based on technology (carbon capture and storage or CCS) that is amply demonstrated at large industrial sources but is not now being used at power plants.  The reason CCS isn’t used on power plants is simple: while CCS works and would cut carbon pollution by large amounts, it isn’t free and there is no federal requirement to cut carbon pollution at all!  So, except for a handful of projects that are being encouraged with some federal financial support, no operating or planned coal plant is using CCS on anything other than small slipstreams. 

EPA is trying to fix this unacceptable state of affairs by setting a standard that would require new coal plants to meet a limit that demonstrated CCS technology can easily achieve.  The authors of the Whitfield draft bill don’t like this and have come up with the impossible-test gambit to bar EPA from acting.  They apparently think that the public is too dumb to see the trick and will support their efforts.

The Whitfield draft’s trick is to bar EPA from setting a carbon pollution limit for new coal plants any better than the current polluting levels from existing coal plants – in other words, a do-nothing standard that would allow new coal plants to continue to refuse to use available CCS technology or do anything else to cut their carbon pollution.  To make sure that EPA cannot set a standard based on what CCS can do, the authors require that any limit that actually requires a reduction in pollution must be achieved for 12 continuous months of operation at six different U.S. only coal plants.  And no plants receiving any CCS government funding or financial assistance may be considered.

This is a Catch-22 at which the late Joseph Heller would smile.  Since there are no federal requirements to cut carbon pollution, the authors know that no coal plant will be built with CCS unless there is some government support or unless there is a requirement to cut their carbon pollution.  The bill makes the second condition impossible and disqualifies any plant that receives government assistance, neatly locking EPA in chains and handing the keys to the very industry that is determined to block EPA action.  

Keeping existing fossil plants dirty:

The authors know that if EPA issues any carbon pollution standard for new plants, even a do-nothing one, that would set in motion standards for existing plants.  To prevent this too from happening, the bill repeals EPA’s authority to make such standards effective and specifies that no regulation of existing plant carbon pollution can take effect until Congress enacts a new law making them effective.  Thus, no matter how many lives may be saved by an existing source standard and no matter how reasonable any compliance costs may be, the bill would empower one group of coal protectors in one house of Congress to block the benefits such a cleanup would provide to the American people.

Unfortunately, this bill is not just a Halloween prank.  It would do real and lasting harm to our children and the rest of us if it became law.  We are counting on responsible members of Congress to stand up to this dangerous nonsense and just say no.

About the Authors

David Hawkins

Director, Climate program

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