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Implications of the Clean Power Plan Stay

Late in the day on Tuesday, February 9, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed, for at least a year and possibly longer, the implementation of the Clean Power Plan (CPP), the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) widely-publicized regulations governing greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal-, oil- and gas-fired power plants.  The stay means that the CPP’s requirements and deadlines are on hold, at least until resolution of the pending legal challenges to the CPP.  But what are the broader implications of the Court’s decision?

First, the stay decision bodes poorly for the ultimate fate of the CPP, even though the Supreme Court did not opine as to the CPP’s legality.  The stay decision signals, at a minimum, that a majority of the Supreme Court is sympathetic to the challengers’ claims that the CPP is unlawful.  Indeed, it signals more than that—a distrust of EPA’s assertions about the minimal burdens imposed by the CPP.  That said, the CPP may yet survive judicial review and, even if it does not survive, EPA may be able to promulgate a replacement regulation that achieves similar results, although such a replacement would surely take several years to develop.

Second, environmentally, the stay is unlikely to have any immediate effect on emissions levels, primarily because the CPP itself does not require any immediate emissions reductions.  But that does not mean the stay has no environmental consequences.  The stay fosters uncertainty about the fate of the CPP, and one potential consequence of that uncertainty is that EPA will feel compelled to devote additional resources to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from other sources, especially the oil and gas sector.

The Obama administration has limited time to pursue such alternatives, but the next administration, if it shares President Obama’s commitment to addressing climate change, may focus much more intensively on addressing the carbon content of fuels, to make up for the delays and uncertainties created by the CPP stay decision.

The stay also raises questions about the fate of the recently secured Paris agreement, since some parties to that agreement may now be wondering whether the US is capable of meeting its commitment to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025.  If other countries doubt the reliability of the US commitment, they may be less bold about seeking emissions reductions themselves.  Indeed, it is precisely such doubts that may drive EPA to pursue more oil and gas regulations.

Finally, lurking in the Supreme Court’s action may be a deeper signal about the fate of the Chevron doctrine, a topic that should be of interest to all entities subject to regulation in the United States, not just to those subject to the Clean Air Act.  A recurring theme in the legal challenges to the CPP is that the CPP raises questions of such extreme economic and political significance that EPA is not entitled to deference as to how those questions should be resolved.  It is not clear what role that theme played in the Supreme Court’s [...]

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The Third Piece of EPA’s Clean Power Plan: GHG Emission Limits for Modified and Reconstructed Power Plants

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed greenhouse gas (GHG) regulations for “new” and “existing” power plants have received substantial media attention, but regulated parties should also be aware of the third piece of EPA’s self-styled “Clean Power Plan”:  Proposed carbon dioxide (CO2) emission limits for “modified” and “reconstructed” electricity generating units (EGUs).

EPA proposed CO2 limits for “modified” and “reconstructed” EGUs on June 2, 2014, the same day it issued its proposed regulations for existing power plants, but it did not release its proposed regulatory text for those limits until several days later.  The proposed regulatory text is now available on EPA’s website, and power plant owners and operators should scrutinize it carefully – it amends the proposed regulatory text that EPA released in January 2014 in connection with its proposed limits for “new” power plants.

As defined in EPA’s regulations, “modified” units are existing units that undergo a physical or operational change that results in an increase in their hourly rate of air emissions, while “reconstructed” units are existing units where components have been replaced to such an extent that the fixed capital cost of the new components exceeds 50 percent of the fixed capital cost that would be required to construct a comparable entirely new facility, and it is technologically and economically feasible to meet the emission standards set by EPA.

Under EPA’s June 2 proposal, neither modified nor reconstructed steam units would have to install carbon capture and storage technology or meet the more stringent CO2 emission standards that EPA has proposed for newly constructed units.  Instead, those units would be required to meet an emission standard based on a combination of best operating practices and equipment upgrades (to improve the unit’s efficiency).  Modified gas turbines would be required to meet the corresponding emission limits for new gas turbines.

More specifically, the proposal would set different standards of performance for different types of units, as follows:

  • Modified fossil fuel-fired EGUs (i.e., utility boilers and integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) units):  the source must meet a EGU-specific emission limit (a) determined by the EGU’s best historical annual CO2 emission rate from 2002 to the date of modification, plus an additional 2 percent emission reduction, or (b) determined depending on whether the modification occurs before or after the EGU becoming subject to a Clean Air Act Section 111(d) state plan.  For option (a), the limit must be at least 1,900 pounds of CO2 per net megawatt-hour (lb/MWh-net) for sources with a heat input exceeding 2,000 million British thermal units per hour (MMBtu/h), or 2,100 lb/MWh-net for sources with a heat input of 2,000 MMBtu/h or less.
  • Reconstructed fossil fuel-fired EGUs:  sources with a heat input exceeding 2,000 MMBtu/h must meet a limit of 1,900 lb/MWh-net, and sources with a heat input of 2,000 MMBtu/h or less must meet a limit of 2,100 lb/MWh-net.
  • Modified or reconstructed natural gas-fired stationary combustion turbines:  sources with a heat input exceeding 850 MMBtu/h must meet a limit of 1,000 pounds of [...]

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