EPA Bamboozles Science Advisory Board on Carbon Pollution Standard [Updated 1.23.2014]

by William Yeatman on January 22, 2014

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Yesterday, I listened in on an EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) teleconference call regarding a possible SAB review of the science underlying the agency’s proposed Carbon Pollution Standard, and what I heard was shocking.

Simply put, EPA misled the SAB, in order to avoid a potentially embarrassing review. By my count, EPA told the SAB three whoppers about the Carbon Pollution Standard. On the basis of this duplicity, the SAB declined to conduct a review of the regulation’s technical feasibility, one that surely would have exposed the rule’s untenable assumptions.

Here’s the back story: SAB was created by the 1978 Environmental Research, Development, and Demonstration Authorization Act. Under the act, EPA is required to make available to the SAB its proposed regulations for review. SAB may then advise the administrator on the adequacy of the scientific and technical basis of the proposed action.

In September 2013, EPA issued a pre-publication version of the Carbon Pollution Standard. The regulation requires that all new coal-fired power plants install carbon capture and sequestration technology to control greenhouse gas emissions. Pursuant to its legal mandate, the SAB delegated to a Work Group the task of performing a preliminary review, on which basis the group would make a recommendation to the full SAB whether or not to conduct a more comprehensive review. On November 12, 2013, the Work Group recommended that the full SAB review “the science supporting” the Carbon Pollution Standard. Directly below, I’ve pasted the Work Group’s conclusion (formatting added):

The Work Group finds that the scientific and technical basis for carbon storage provisions is new science and the rulemaking would benefit from additional review. The specific technical and scientific matters that can be examined as part of the discussion include the scientific basis to develop separate standards for new gas-fired and coal-fired units, carbon capture and storage as a Best System of Emission Reductions for coal-fired plants and underlying scientific assumptions around carbon pollution emissions technological controls.

During yesterday’s teleconference, the full SAB considered whether to further review the Carbon Pollution Standard. And a key determinant of the SAB’s decision was the Work Group’s recommendation. Yet between November 12th and yesterday, the Work Group changed its recommendation 180 degrees. Before, the group had recommended a review; now, it advised that the SAB decline to review the Carbon Pollution Standard.

What happened? According to the Work Group, it was persuaded to change its mind by EPA during a December 17 “fact finding teleconference.” To be precise, here’s what EPA claimed, as interpreted by the Work Group in its recommendation:

  1. “EPA has made a policy decision that this action only applies to carbon emissions and the capture of carbon emissions, and thus does not directly address carbon sequestration.”
  2. “EPA staff explained that the agency’s consideration of feasibility and commercially availability of CCS provisions would be binding only on coal-fired EGUs and were based on three examples of implementing partial CCS.”
  3. “They [EPA staff] state that the agency’s considerations meet the statutory requirements to determine if technologies will be available for the regulated community at the time of construction”

In fact, the SAB was duped. On the truthiness spectrum, EPA’s claims (on which basis the SAB Work Group rendered its advice) range from lies of omission to bald face untruths. Below, I address each one in turn.

1. “EPA has made a policy decision that this action only applies to carbon emissions and the capture of carbon emissions, and thus does not directly address carbon sequestration.”

Here, EPA is saying that the Carbon Pollution Standard, which requires carbon capture and sequestration, has nothing to do with sequestration. The agency is trying to take the “S” out of “CCS.” EPA would have the SAB believe that the regulation is only a mandate to capture carbon from coal plants; what is done thereafter isn’t relevant to the rule. And because geological sequestration isn’t allegedly part of the rule, EPA reasons that SAB has no business reviewing the scientific and technical aspects of storing CO2 underground.

Of course, this flies in the face of reality, not to mention common sense. There aren’t any utility-scale CCS projects yet in existence, but if there were, not a single one of them would store captured CO2 onsite. This is due to the simple fact that doing so would be impossible. According to Detroit Edison’s William Rogers, who participated on yesterday’s conference call, installing CCS on a 750 megawatt coal plant would capture enough super critical CO2 to fill  two and a half Pontiac Silverdomes, every year. As such, no coal plant could be expected to sequester CO2 in tanks onsite. More to the point, EPA’s proposed carbon pollution standard gives an entire section to demonstrating the technical feasibility of geological sequestration (see section VII(D)(3) of the proposed rule). If sequestration isn’t germane to the Carbon Pollution Standard, then someone should tell the agency.

Regarding EPA’s “policy decision” that the Carbon Pollution Standard doesn’t pertain to geological sequestration, one member of the full SAB noted that, “We had a boundary put on us..and the boundary did not allow us to discuss sequestration.” In fact, the SAB had the wool pulled over their collective eyes, as this was an artificial boundary, unconnected to the legal realities facing the rule. If EPA thinks it can duck judicial review of the Carbon Pollution Standard by claiming that the regulation has nothing to do with geological sequestration, then the agency will get laughed out of court.

Frankly, I’m surprised the SAB bought EPA’s explanation. One would only have to read the executive summary of the Carbon Pollution Standard to know that it clearly envisions sequestration as part of the technological basis for the rule.

2. “EPA staff explained that the agency’s consideration of feasibility and commercially availability of CCS provisions would be binding only on coal-fired EGUs and were based on three examples of implementing partial CCS.”

EPA here is claiming that the Carbon Pollution Standard won’t be precedential. Bull manure! For every subsequent New Source Performance Standards determination, the agency will have to consider GHG emissions. And every time the agency does so, it will have to consider the carbon capture and sequestration, and explain why the technology, despite being “technically feasible (as determined in the Carbon Pollution Standard rulemaking), shouldn’t be required. Thus, EPA’s consideration of feasibility for CCS will affect future rulemakings for all heavy industry, by placing the burden of proof on the agency for explaining why CCS is not the best system of emissions reduction.

 3. “They state that the agency’s considerations meet the statutory requirements to determine if technologies will be available for the regulated community at the time of construction”

Here, EPA is telling the SAB that it shouldn’t review the technical feasibility of the Carbon Pollution Standard, because the agency says that the rule is technically feasible. For the second time, I’m flummoxed by SAB’s seeming gullibility:  why did the SAB buy into the plainly circular reasoning behind EPA’s claim. For the record, whether the rule is indeed commercially viable very much remains in doubt.

Clearly, EPA wanted no part of a SAB review of the scientific and technical basis of the proposed Carbon Pollution Standard. As reported by Politico Morning Energy, the SAB’s decision not to review the Carbon Pollution Standard means that the agency “dodged a bullet.” To this end–that of avoiding unwelcome scrutiny–EPA prevaricated, and the SAB fell for it hook, line, and sinker.

Update: 9:06 AM 23 January 2014 — Perhaps I gave the SAB too little credit. Members did acknowledge the EPA’s constraints. As reported this morning by InsideEPA’s Chris Knight (subscription req’d)

But many SAB members protested about the constraints and wanted to make it clear that, had they been allowed to review sequestration, they might have arrived at a different conclusion. SAB members said they were concerned about the risks of transporting and storing large amounts of carbon dioxide deep underground when there have been relatively few utility-scale projects that use the technology.

Otto Doering said he felt “backed into a corner” under the “rules of the game” of the SAB that prevented them from evaluating the science of the carbon sequestration that could occur under the NSPS. He wanted to make it clear in their eventual report that SAB’s decision was made under the constraints imposed by their review.

“I think it’s important that we call a spade a spade,” he said.

Another SAB member, Peter Chapman, said though climate change “scares the heck out of me,” he thought implementation of cutting carbon emissions was another issue that deserved scientific scrutiny, and said SAB needs to “put a very strong message out there that we have been given a line in the sand” of what it was allowed to review. Utility-scale carbon sequestration could have “unexpected outcomes and unintended consequences,” he said.

SAB member Jim Mihelcic, who led the SAB work group that wrote the memo that recommended reviewing the rule but later reversed itself in light of EPA’s legal arguments that sequestration was not part of the rule, said the work group had a “boundary set on us” that it could not focus on sequestration. Mihelcic, however, said he wanted to “state publicly that at no point was the work group pressured by anyone” at EPA about its decision whether to review the rule.

Regarding Mihelcic’s disavowal of any undue EPA “pressure,” I’ve two things to say. First, the comment seems to be belied by the previous statement from Peter Chapman (“we have been given a line in the sand”). Maybe it wasn’t pressure, so much as it was an order? Second, why didn’t SAB question EPA’s wacky legalese? Is the SAB fulfilling its statutory mandate by rubber stamping EPA’s unreasonable scientific and technical analysis?

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