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

  1. jimbeau11 says:

    Sure you bet. The EEI itself talks about how declining sales in certain parts of the country are already happening and how it’s a disruptive force for their business model.

    Even EIA, which has always painted a far rosier picture of future energy use than tends to come about, shows the rate of sales growth as stagnating over the next few decades. This is even with their not-so-hot ability to forecast cost declines in solar PV and their systematic underestimate of future rates for customers (but that’s getting technical).

    I’m not saying a dramatic increase in sales can’t happen, but it’s not super likely given the evidence at hand and some of the trends happening now. And even if it did, the new growth would have to be met with far lower-carbon generation.

  2. GaiusPublius says:

    Thanks for the comment, Jimbeau. Can you provide links for the statement below? I’d like to look into this.

    there’s almost no one serious who thinks utility sales will not plateau and begin declining soon, even in Kentucky, because of rising costs of status quo sources of power


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  4. pvequalkt says:

    of course audacity hopey changey and the democraps are worse. They still have the illusion, among the remaining imbecile voters who vote for them, of giving a crap about people and the environment.
    For THEM to implement the various money policies is to normalize them among everyone… cuz if Ds do it, it has to be, you know, … better.
    Even if it’s the same policy as the Rs demand? … um… yeah. still “better”.
    Now we’re a fascist despotic warmongering criminal kleptocracy… and we all vote for it… cuz Ds are doing it.
    Dems are the Koch’s bestest pals when it comes to actually implementing policy.

  5. pvequalkt says:

    another money canard in the person of audacity hopey changey’s dodge wrt the epa.
    Look everyone, as long as the money has us all “discussing” cap and trade or new EPA rules or whatever… we’ll NEVER demand that our shit-for-morals government actually, you know, ACT on the subject.
    It’s like discussing which vitamin regimen will cure your mom of stage 4 liver cancer. It makes for a lively discussion… lots of facts can be bandied about… but your. mom. will. die.
    You want to lengthen and enhance the tenure of humankind on this planet? You pour money and manpower into wind, solar, geothermal and so on to replace burning of shit for power. You do this now… not never. And you sure as hell don’t waste your time being fooled by those who will kill your entire kind by 2100 in order to live very well today.

  6. jimbeau11 says:

    I really have to take issue with this, not from a political perspective (since I wish the rules were tougher) but as someone who works in energy analysis & clean energy – the premise here is very, very misleading. The Bloomberg article makes several rather far-fetched assumptions about future utility rates – there’s almost no one serious who thinks utility sales will not plateau and begin declining soon, even in Kentucky, because of rising costs of status quo sources of power. The rules themselves also assume a significant role for energy efficiency, which means that there’s almost no chance that carbon emissions will increase in any state.

    Finally, in the case of California – California already has pathbreaking reduction goals that require cuts to the level the IPCC recommends by 2050, and no one is ever going to be likely to rescind that law. Not only that, California is many years ahead of schedule in terms of making those emission cuts.

    Basically, the assumption that this could actually increase carbon emissions is just as laughable as saying that no one should ever buy solar because a lot of it is manufactured using coal-fired electricity.

    You all may hate Obama for some unrelated reason, and I am not here to dissuade you of that, but this blog post and the Bloomberg article really miss a ton of the nuance. As a “reality based community” I would encourage you to proceed with caution.

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  8. eggroll_jr says:

    This is the classic double-team strategy developed by global hydrocarbon producers. It’s identical to what we’ve seen in southern Europe and Mexico lately. Hydrocarbon production, particularly oil and gas, are subject to disruptions. Coal is not just produced a a specific physical site (a coal mine), it also is almost always burned at a fixed location (coal-fired power plant). That means the industry has to capture not just the local political agencies, but nationally control authoring of executive orders and laws. When average citizen wants to complain about bad air quality, mercury in everything, etc. where does he or she turn? If you go to coal company, they point to their license, and if you go to the licensing agency, they’ll tell you the plant wouldn’t have a license if it wasn’t in compliance. Even if you were rich enough to set up an alternative measuring scheme that could accurately document the damage of a specific plant, your authority would be challenged. In the end, the industry deflects to the government, the government bounces you around and deflects back to industry, and so forth. Meanwhile, you become suspect for even questioning resource theft or the massive liberation of carbon and toxins into the air, land and water. “Because…jobs…freedom, etc. Why do you hate Merica so much, anyway?”

  9. Bill_Perdue says:

    The Democrats were more harmful than Republicans because they could fool more people and gets lots of Republican bills passed – NAFTA, TPP, deregulation, gutting welfare, adding cops, DADT, DOMA, NDAA etc.

    That’s no longer the case. People see through their BS and the lesser evil BS as well.

    Democrats and Republicans are like:

  10. heimaey says:

    I doubt that. Once they have no one to do their dirty work for them they’ll flip out.

  11. Naja pallida says:

    I would almost argue that Obama’s approach is more harmful than a Republican response. At least we know Republicans don’t care about destroying the environment. But Obama’s response puts up the false impression that something proactive is being done, essentially making it so others treat the problem as if there is a solution already in the works. Delaying any actual meaningful climate response, when delay is the last thing we need. He had the same depressingly cynical approach with healthcare. Token measures that serve no long-term purpose than to ensure the can is kicked down the road, yet again. Enriching the already rich, and leaving the rest of us to pay for it – in money and lives.

  12. Bill_Perdue says:

    I agree completely but I’d add this.

    It’s not just this or that candidate of the Democrats or Republicans who’s messed up. Both of those parties have institutional ties to the looter classes and are, in effect and in reality, owned by them. Participation in those parties can only have the effect of increasing climate change, fostering wars of aggression and enabling the wage cutting and union busting of the looter classes and the banksters.

  13. Max_1 says:

    Choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil…
    … No matter the lesser, evil will always be evil.

  14. lynchie says:

    the 1% will use our bodies to build a wall to keep the ocean out. They will be unaffected by climate change because they will have bunkers with clean air, non polluted water and all the luxury they are accustomed to. We on the other hand will be used like canaries in a coal mine.

  15. Bill_Perdue says:

    “The global concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – the primary driver of recent climate change – has reached 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in recorded history, according to data from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii.”

    “CO2 concentrations haven’t been this high in millions of years. Even more alarming is the rate of increase in the last five decades and the fact that CO2 stays in the atmosphere for hundreds or thousands of years. … Climate change is a threat to life on Earth and we can no longer afford to be spectators.” Dr. Erika Podest

  16. heimaey says:

    Until the seas rise, and the rich people don’t feel the effects…nothing will do done. People are still arguing over whether it’s a leftist conspiracy.

  17. Indigo says:

    In letting Obama run away with the nomination, we decided we wanted a lawyer who could straighten things out. We got a lawyer. Now realistically speaking, lawyers do not actually straighten things out, they tangle things up. Mission (ironically) accomplished!

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