How EPA rules allow coal states like Kentucky to increase carbon emissions (you read that right)

Thank you, President Obama, for making your new EPA “anti-coal” rules so twisted, it takes a while to see the trick. (Yes, your humble correspondent is a frustrated man at the moment.)

But tricks there are, and one of them would allow some coal states to increase carbon emissions — just the opposite of what the rules were designed to do.

When the EPA’s Clean Power Plan was announced, we noted a piece in The Guardian saying that the way the EPA rules were implemented, some coal states could actually increase emissions.

From the underlying article (my emphasis):

Obama plan to reduce pollution will allow some states to increase emissions

Mountain-top removal in coal-heavy states like Kentucky & West Virginia (source)

Mountain-top removal in coal-heavy states like Kentucky & West Virginia (source)

Coal-heavy states like West Virginia will be allowed to increase emissions while still meeting overall target of 30% cut nationally

Barack Obama’s new power plant rules will still allow some states to increase their share of the carbon pollution [CO2 emissions] that causes climate change, officials admitted for the first time on Wednesday.

Obama and supporters cast the new rules for power plants as an historic step to fighting climate change and protecting public health. But some of the dirtiest and most coal-heavy states – such as West Virginia and Kentucky – will be allowed to maintain or even increase their emissions under the plan, according to analysts.

While The Guardian is a reputable source, some questioned the assertion, since the “analysts” were unnamed, and the underlying analysis not explained.

Turns out The Guardian was right. Bloomberg BusinessWeek explains in detail.

How some coal states may get to increase carbon emissions under new EPA rules

Before we take you to the analysis, a small bit of background. You’d think, if you weren’t paying attention, that the EPA rules to curb emissions would be curbing … (take your best guess) … emissions.

They don’t. The EPA rules curb “emissions per megawatt-hour produced.” Partly that was done to make methane-burning even more preferenced in the rules, since methane always produces less carbon emission per megawatt-hour (assuming you don’t count leakage, which the EPA rules conveniently won’t do).

As we wrote earlier about ways to game this cap-and-trade system:

Fourth, the scheme could fail by regulating the wrong “measurable.” In the case of carbon emissions from electricity plants, the measureable could be either “carbon dioxide” or “all hydrocarbon emissions.” Using the former would prevent you from counting leakage from methane-burning (natural gas) plants. You could also measure either “total emissions” or “emissions per megawatt-hour generated.” Measuring the latter also favors methane-burning plants, since methane plants already generate more power per unit of emission.

But I didn’t anticipate that choosing the wrong measurable would also affect the way coal was regulated. Here’s Bloomberg to explain why that matters in coal’s case:

Under the estimates the agency put out last week, every state would have to cut its emissions at least a little. But it’s not clear that’s what will really happen. Some states may actually be able to increase their CO2 emissions by 2030 and still be in compliance with the new rules. The analysts at Bloomberg New Energy Finance dug into the formula the EPA used to determine the state goals and have come up with a scenario in which eight states—California, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Kentucky, and Rhode Island—can all increase their COemissions. …

[Our] analysis hinges on a crucial point: The state standards don’t mandate absolute cuts in CO2. Rather, they require states to lower the ratio between the amount of emissions they produce and the amount of power they generate. The EPA has given states a great deal of flexibility to decide how to lower this ratio. The rules don’t explicitly say a state has to cut its emissions to lower the ratio. If, say, a state increases the amount of power it generates, its emissions can rise as well without disrupting the ratio

Two states illustrate how this could happen: California and Kentucky. … 

Kentucky … currently has the dirtiest power mix in the country. Almost all its electricity comes from coal. With very little renewable energy capacity, its ability to switch that coal to natural gas or other cleaner fuels is, currently, about zero. The EPA’s rules can order states with gas plants to use them more, but it can’t order a state to build them. As a result, the EPA goes easy on Kentucky. If energy demands increase in the state, as expected, the state could burn more coal, and put more carbon into the air, without raising eyebrows at the EPA.

Kentucky — one of the dirtiest of dirty coal states, gets a bye because it needs fixing more than any other state. Ponder that. War on Coal indeed.

In addition, the EPA will let states decide how to implement its targets. So politicians in a coal-corrupted state like Kentucky are free to decide whether to dig and burn whatever the coal barons say to dig and burn until there’s nothing left in the ground. How convenient.

In other words, the EPA has written its rules with a hole so large you could drive a coal train through it. Thanks, Mr. President. Got Library yet? (I think that’s not snark. It pains me to think I’m dead on.)


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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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