EPA: Artless Dodging on ‘Carbon Pollution’ Rule

by Marlo Lewis on March 13, 2014

in Blog, Features

Post image for EPA: Artless Dodging on ‘Carbon Pollution’ Rule

Yesterday, the House Science Energy and Environment Subcommittees held a joint hearing on the “Science of Capture and Storage: Understanding EPA’s Carbon Rules.” EPA Air Office Acting Administrator Janet McCabe was the sole witness on the second panel. Her testimony begins about one hour and 54 minutes (1:54) into the archived Webcast. Although calm and non-ideological in tone, McCabe’s responses in the lengthy Q&A were terse, usually uninformative, and often evasive.

The hearing focused on carbon capture and storage (CCS), the technology new coal-fired power plants will have to install to meet the carbon dioxide (CO2) New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) in EPA’s proposed “Carbon Pollution Rule.” Under the Clean Air Act, NSPS are to “reflect the degree of emission limitation achievable through the application of the best system of emission reduction which . . . has been adequately demonstrated.”

Environment Subcommittee Chair David Schweikert (R.-Ariz.) kicked off the Q&A (1:59) by noting that the “Carbon Pollution Rule” assumes CCS technology is “robust and ready to go,” yet the “previous panel was pretty crisp, even from right to left, that there are still some real concerns on the technology itself.” He asked for “technical” information clarifying how EPA set the CO2 standards.

McCabe responded by explaining that the “Carbon Pollution Rule” does not actually mandate the use of CCS, it sets a performance standard based on CCS, and let’s covered facilities decide for themselves how to meet the standard. Okay, but that’s a distinction without a difference, since the only known technology that can reduce CO2 emissions from coal plants as much as CCS is CCS.

McCabe continued:

When it comes to the technology that we based those numbers on [i.e. 1,100 lbs. CO2 per MWh for new coal plants], we believe that if you look across all the information and data that’s available, that there is adequate and robust data showing that the various components that we based the standard on are in use, have been in use, and will be ready.

In other words, instead of providing technical information addressing the concerns raised during the previous panel, McCabe said, in effect, ‘Trust us, we’re the experts.’

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), noting GOP Members’ concerns about the cost of CCS, asked McCabe to discuss the “costs associated with the lack of action to address climate change and increasing emissions.” McCabe responded (2:10):

That’s a very good question. There are costs to our economy and to society from the impacts of climate change that is already happening. In 2013, there were seven extreme weather events. Which I think is a nice way of saying great, big, huge horrible storms that cost the economy over a billion dollars each. This is a real economic impact on our communities, our families across the country.

Prompted by Bonamici, McCabe went on to include “health care costs” and “disruption to families and whole communities” among the costs of inaction.

Whether deliberately or otherwise, McCabe blurs the distinction between climate risk and climate change risk. Hurricanes are not some new phenomenon unique to the Age of Global Warming. Huge, horrible storms have billion-dollar costs — that is the nature of the beast. Blaming hurricanes on CO2 emissions is unscientific. There has been no long-term trend in the strength or frequency of hurricanes, none in global accumulated cyclone energy, and none in hurricane damages once losses are adjusted to take into account increases in population, wealth, and the consumer price index. The U.S. is currently experiencing the longest period on record with no major (category 3-5) hurricane landfall strikes.

Blaming hurricane damages on congressional gridlock (“lack of action”) is loopy. Even complete elimination of U.S. CO2 emissions via immediate and total shutdown of the economy would avert only a hypothetical 0.19°C of warming by 2100 — too small a reduction to have any detectable effect on weather patterns. Ergo, no lesser emission reductions that might have been implemented during the past decade or two could provide any meaningful protection to people or property even if one assumes all seven billion-dollar storms in 2013 were ginned up by climate change.

Energy Subcommittee Chair Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) was quick to challenge McCabe’s claim that climate change (rather than plain old climate) caused the seven disasters (2:10):

Lummis: Thank you for being here Ms. McCabe. Are you here  to testify then that these weather events were absolutely caused by climate change?

McCabe: The scientific community has identified a number of impacts of climate change. Among those are increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.

Lummis: So are you sure that the specific weather events that you cite were caused by climate change?

McCabe: I’m not a meteorologist. I can’t speak to any specific weather event. And . . .

Lummis: Thank you.

Was McCabe trying to pull a fast one, or is she just confused?

Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) expressed his perplexity about how EPA could conclude in its 2012 proposed “Carbon Pollution Rule” that CCS is not an “adequately demonstrated” technology but then conclude one year later, in its 2013 proposal, that CCS is an adequately demonstrated technology. McCabe provided no specifics that might explain EPA’s switcheroo.

Hall (2:16): EPA’s first new source performance standard proposal in 2012, you were there. The EPA determined that carbon capture and storage technology was not the best system of emission reduction for new coal power plants. Correct?

McCabe: That’s the proposal that we withdrew, Congressman.

Hall: I’m getting to that. A year later, in your latest proposal, EPA said that it is now the best system for emission reductions. You just changed your mind overnight?

McCabe: No sir, we revised our proposal . . .

Hall: It took you a month or so to do it then?

McCabe: No sir, we revised our proposal based on the information we had available to us at those points in the process. And we felt, and we got a lot of input on the first proposal, and we felt that a different approach was the appropriate one given all of that information that we obtained.

Hall: What’s changed so dramatically in one year that would allow EPA to reach a different conclusion on the technical and economic feasibility of CCS?

McCabe: We actually felt that the revised proposal provided a much clearer and more appropriate path for gas-fired facilities and coal-fired facilities. And that was the basis for our decision to change the proposal.

Yes, we know EPA considers the revised proposal “appropriate.” That’s not an explanation, merely a repetition of that which Hall asked her to explain.

Why the evasiveness? Here’s my hypothesis. EPA’s original proposal was an almost naked fuel-switching mandate that would force utilities planning to build new coal-fired power plants to build natural gas combined cycle power plants instead. Since Congress never intended for the Clean Air Act to ban new coal generation, the proposal had little chance of surviving the expected litigation challenges. So EPA re-proposed the rule on the pretense that coal plants can now affordably meet the standard via installation of CCS.

The rule is still a de-facto fuel-switching mandate, however, because: (1) 95% of all new natural gas combined cycle power plants already meet the proposed CO2 NSPS for such facilities (“Carbon Pollution Rule,” p. 291), and (2) the “levelized cost” of new NGCC power plants is much cheaper than that of new coal-fired power plants with CCS.

Hall then pressed McCabe on the legal definition of “adequately demonstrated.” She responded with more artless dodging.

Hall (2:18): I guess I was hoping that you could help me understand EPA’s position with respect to the Clean Air Act requirement that it can only mandate the use of emissions reduction systems that have been, quote, “adequately demonstrated,” unquote. Would you agree, yes or no, that there has not been a single utility-scale power plant in the world currently operating with CCS?

McCabe: I’m sorry, can you repeat the last part of that?

Hall: Do you agree that there isn’t a single utility-scale power plant in the world currently operating with CCS?

McCabe: There are small facilities operating.

Hall: There are small . . . how do you distinguish that?

McCabe: Well, there are a variety of sizes of utility boilers. And there are operating facilities that are small that are using this technology now. 

Hall: Okay would you agree, yes or no, that the law’s requirement that a technology system be, quote, “adequately demonstrated,” unquote, is past tense, not future tense?

McCabe: Uh . . . Uh . . .

Hall: You’re having a hard time with that one. Do you want me to go on to the next one?

McCabe: Well no sir, I would agree that we look at technology that is in use and make a judgment based on whether that is feasible and available for the particular sector that the rule covers.

Hall: That it is adequately demonstrated?

McCabe: That it is adequately demonstrated.

Hall: The Clean Air Act requires that the entire system of a new technology be adequately demonstrated, not just individual components. How is EPA’s decision to mandate that power plants employ a system that has never been fully and adequately demonstrated considered legal under the Clean Air Act? How can you justify that?

McCabe: We believe that the system has been adequately demonstrated looking at the variety of applications that have been used and are in use for many years.

Hall: Maybe you can in this next question provide any other example of a “demonstrated,” quote, technology required by EPA regulation where the technology was not used on a commercial basis.

McCabe: Our rule and the technical documents that accompany it go through all the examples of the various technologies that we base the rule on, and we’re happy to provide a list.

Rep. Randy Hultgren (R.-Ill.) asked how CCS’s low “technological readiness level” (TRL) ratings in National Energy Technology Laboratory assessments square with EPA’s determination that CCS is adequately demonstrated.

Hultgren (2:22): As of December 2012, a NETL report, technology assessment on clean coal research programs, NETL had 285 projects under way developing technologies related to CCS. Only one project had a TRL above 6, and 77% of the projects were at 4 or below. The only project above 6 was a regional sequestration project that is not widely applicable across the United States. The DOE fossil energy description of plant technology as TRL 6 is: “Engineering scale models or prototypes are tested in a relevant environment.” Pilot or process development unit scale is defined as being between zero and 5 percent final scale. I’m wondering how did EPA reconcile the obvious differences between what you’re calling “adequately demonstrated” and what the administrative agency charged with developing the technology has clearly defined as being at 5 percent or less than the final scale?

McCabe: Well, there’s a lot of information available about the types of technologies we’re talking about here. And in fact the Secretary of Energy has indicated on many occasions that he is comfortable that this technology is available and ready for use and should be employed. So these are all the kinds of discussions that we have with technical experts in and outside of government to make a determination about “adequately demonstrated.”

Carbon Capture and Storage Technological Readiness NETL Dec. 2012

Instead of providing specific information, McCabe appeals to the authority of unnamed “technical experts.”

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R.-Calif.) asked whether McCabe thinks 97% of scientists agree that most warming of recent decades is man-made. She did not raise this in her testimony, but it is a popular talking point, featured in a Presidential Tweet last May. McCabe ducks and weaves, but Rohrabacher is persistent.

Rohrabacher (2:28): You don’t believe that 97% of scientists agree with the man-made global warming theory, do you?

McCabe: Congressman there’s overwhelming support in the scientific community . . .

Rohrabacher: That’s not my question. The 97% that we hear — overwhelming could be 60%, could be 50% — I don’t even believe it’s overwhelming. But you don’t believe that it’s 97% do you?

McCabe: I don’t know that it’s helpful to talk about . . .

Rohrabacher: Wait a minute, I’m asking you a question. Do you believe . . . this 97% figure is thrown at us all the time. You don’t believe that, do you?

McCabe: I don’t believe it or disbelieve it, Congressman.

Rohrabacher: You don’t want to answer the question. I ask you whether you believe this figure that is presented to us. Is the 97% an accurate or inaccurate figure?

McCabe: 97% of the studies on this issue conclude that climate change is real and happening.

Rohrabacher: That wasn’t my question. My question is do you believe that 97% of the scientists believe that climate change is happening because of human activity?

McCabe: The premise of your question — the 97% — doesn’t come from individual scientists. It comes from the number of studies.

Rohrabacher: Okay the people who’ve been throwing the 97% figure at us have been wrong.

McCabe: I don’t know who’s been saying . . .

Rohrabacher: We just heard it earlier, didn’t we? We just heard it earlier.

McCabe: I. . . I . . .

Rohrabacher: Okay you don’t want to answer that question, I got it.

Actually, both Rohrabacher and McCabe are confused about the facts. The issue is whether 97% of climate scientists accept the IPCC “consensus” position that most of the warming since 1951 is man-made. The alleged evidence for the 97% figure is a survey by skeptic-bashers Charles Cook, Dana Nucitelli, and colleagues.

As I explain in a Fox News column, which summarizes the careful re-analysis of Delaware University Prof. David Legates and colleagues, fewer than 1% of 11,944 science paper abstracts examined explicitly endorse the IPCC position. At most, Cook and Nucitelli found that 97% of one-third of the abstracts examined affirm or imply that CO2 emissions are responsible for some non-negligible portion of recent warming. And guess what? Many skeptics (including yours truly) incline to that view. Even if that shallow consensus does exist, it is not evidence that climate change is a planetary emergency. Still less is it a mandate for policies like the “Carbon Pollution Rule.”

Next, Rohrabacher questioned McCabe about the efficacy of the “Carbon Pollution Rule.” Her answers are non-responsive.

Rohrabacher (2:30): That said, if all of the mandates that we’re talking about, and the change in regulation that we’re talking about happen, I take it . . . and we keep hearing that it’s . . . . about making sure we aren’t changing the climate of the planet, how much effect on the climate of the planet will these regulations have?

McCabe: So these regulations are intended to control the amount of CO2 that is emitted by future power plants. We know that CO2 is a key contributor to what is happening in the climate. And that we must reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere in order to have an impact. This is a global pollutant. A global problem. There are many sources of it. These are significant sources of it.

Rohrabacher: So there’ll be a significant change in our climate if we follow these new guidelines, is that correct?

McCabe: These guidelines are an important part of an effort in this country and globally to make the kind of changes that are needed to address climate change. You will not be able to . . .

Rohrabacher: That’s a good way not to answer the question. How much effect will it have on the climate?

McCabe: No individual rule will be able to be traced . . .

Rohrabacher: So it will have very little impact, if any?

McCabe: It’s an important aspect of the effort to reduce CO2 globally.

Rohrabacher: Again, you don’t want to answer the question. Listen, when I’m asked a question in a debate, I’m willing to debate the things I disagree with. You have dodged almost every question that I’ve asked you. I’m sorry. That’s not the way we should be handling ourselves here.

McCabe’s evasiveness here is puzzling. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has already admitted on the record that President Obama’s entire climate change program will have no detectable effect on any projected climate change impacts. The program’s real utility, McCarthy stated, consists in “positioning the U.S. for leadership in an international discussion.” Maybe EPA has decided to mothball that explanation, which never made much sense. In effect, McCarthy argued that if we shoot ourselves in the foot by restricting U.S. access to affordable energy, China, India, and other developing will feel obliged to follow suit. But then they would relinquish the competitive advantage that our higher energy costs confer upon them. Why would they do that?

Returning to the “adequately demonstrated” issue, Rep. Kevin Cramer (R.-N.D.) asked how many coal plants currently use CCS. Here the problem was not evasion but lack of basic information.

Cramer (2:33): How many coal plants use carbon capture now — coal-fired electricity plants?

McCabe: So, I actually don’t add these up. [Turning to her staff] Do you have a number?

Cramer: Can you name some? Could you name some?

McCabe: Yes. So the Warrior Run power plant, the Shady Point power plant. There is a power plant in Germany called the Vattenfall Schwarze power plant.

Cramer: Do you know the average size or how much . . . how many megawatts they produce?

McCabe:  I don’t have that information with me, Congressman, but we can get it for you.

Rep. Randy Weber (R.-Texas) asked how a technology can be “adequately demonstrated” if it depends on substantial federal subsidy, as does a major CCS project in his district.

Weber (2:42): Are you here today to testify that you think what was done at the Air Products plant in Port Arthur, Texas, a $400 million project with 66% government funding — that that proves and demonstrates that this is a viable project to be done . . . or process in business? Are you here to testify to that?

McCabe: Sir, I’m here to speak about our proposal which is based on a variety of information not any one single project.

Weber: Well, can you tell me of another carbon capture and storage facility that’s that big or of that magnitude?

McCabe: Well, I’m not as familiar with the specifics of that project as you are, certainly, but there are places where carbon is being injected into the ground, there is lots and lots of EOR [enhanced oil recovery] going on everywhere around the country, indeed around the world.

More evasion. Weber’s question was not about the specifics of the Port Arthur facility, nor about whether EOR is profitable for oil companies, but whether anyone has ever built a CCS power plant of comparable size without substantial subsidy.

What to make of this long but non-informative exchange between a top EPA expert and the people’s representatives? Several possibilities leap to mind.

  1. The Obama administration has so little regard for the separation of powers that it feels no obligation to explain or justify its actions beyond vague generalities and repetition of talking points that everybody familiar with the debate has already heard.
  2. Obama officials are so steeped in groupthink they see little point in addressing arguments or criticisms put forward by contrarians, skeptics, or Republicans.
  3. Obama officials cannot afford to give straight answers because that might expose the “Carbon Pollution Rule” for what it is — a product of anti-coal ideology rather than policy-neutral science and economics.
  4. All of the above.



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