Widgets Magazine


The EPA’s Procrastination Problem

I am a procrastinator. Frankly, most of us are, to some extent. (And if you’re one of those rare get-the-job-done-immediately types, feel free to gloat quietly in your corner.)

But checking Facebook several dozen times when I should be writing this column, or pulling the occasional exam cram session, is nothing compared to the massive dawdling job that the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s doing when it comes to regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

Late last month, the EPA missed its own deadline to impose a new rule on carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants. The “New Source Performance Standard” would have applied only to plants built after the rule’s passage, limiting their emissions to 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour of electricity generated. The emissions cap, while plausible for natural gas-fired plants and, of course, for renewable energy sources, would have halted construction of coal-fired power plants, at least until technology improves.

This latest bureaucratic blunder is only the latest stall in a series of legal battles stretching back 14 years.

Back in 1999, before most Americans had even heard of global warming, the EPA was petitioned to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles. It took a decade for the petition, its associated lawsuits – and, ultimately, a Supreme Court ruling – to force the EPA to agree that, yes, greenhouse gas emissions pose a threat to the American public and the environment. And, under the Clean Air Act, the EPA now had legal standing to regulate these emissions.

Of course, deciding you ought to do something, and actually doing it, are two different things.

It was 2011 before any regulations came into force, and most of 2012 was consumed by promises and proposals, followed by this year’s ball dropping. The pattern is frustratingly predictable: The EPA stalls. Lawsuits are filed to force the Agency’s hand. Years are spent in courtrooms before the EPA is legally compelled to take action. At least ten states are threatening to sue over this latest episode, accusing the EPA of failing to take action in the face of scientific consensus that the Agency itself has acknowledged.

But for every environmentally proactive state, there’s a slough of opposing commercial interests.

By doing nothing, the EPA upholds the status quo – and a very comfortable status quo it is, particularly for the oil and gas industry. Obviously, those who make their living off our addiction to fossil fuels would hate to see their profits damped by restrictions on the carbon dioxide inevitably emitted by the combustion reaction. And the rest of us cringe at the thought of rising prices or restrictions on our energy consumption. That’s why we cling to phrases like “clean coal” and the idea that we’ll be able to use America’s abundant coal reserves in a future, zero-emissions lifestyle.

Unfortunately,  “clean coal” is a myth, at least for now.

Certainly, there is such a thing as “cleaner coal.” After all, “cleanliness” used to refer to the degree of secondary pollution associated with coal power plants, like asthma-inducing soot, acid rain, and smog. By adding scrubbers, increasing smokestack height, and taking some pre-processing steps, the coal industry cleaned up in part (under the supervision of none other than the EPA). But cleaning coal of carbon emissions is a much harder task.

When politicians bandy about the term “clean coal,” they’re usually referring to carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. In theory, CCS is a multi-step process that collects carbon dioxide emissions at their generation site, packages them up, and stashes them somewhere safe (for example, tucked away in geological formations, or chemically transformed into stable carbonate compounds). And it does work in practice – just not at the scale coal-fired power plants would need to meet the EPA’s new standard.

Where CCS technology is advancing, so too are concerns: How do the additional energy requirements of capture and transport affect the efficiency of electricity generation? Which geological features are stable enough to store carbon dioxide? How securely will they hold it, and for how long?

So perhaps it’s no wonder that the EPA is waffling. The United States has a pressing need to join the rest of the developed world in facing the realities of climate change. Prevention – or, at least, reduction in magnitude – is the first, best solution. But if the technology’s not there, and a world without coal-fired power is too frightening, what else is there to do but wait?

Holly welcomes reader questions, comments, and carbon capture devices at hollyvm “at” stanford “dot” edu.

About Holly Moeller

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).