U.S. Congress Moving Bill To Undercut U.S. EPA: Mary Nichols Op-Ed


Nichols: The proposed “Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011” intends to strip the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of any authority to regulate global warming carbon emissions from vehicles, large factories, and power plants by reversing a Supreme Court decision that found carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to be harmful air pollutants and ordered the EPA under the Bush administration to consider whether they should be regulated under the Clean Air Act. The legislation would rob our country of one of its most powerful tools to reduce not only carbon pollution and consumers fuel expenses but also our dependence on foreign oil. At issue is the preemption of the federal Clean Air Act, one of the most successful environmental laws in U.S. history. For 40 years, opponents have claimed that environmental regulations will lead to “regulatory train wrecks” and economic devastation. During that same 40 years, the Clean Air Act has dramatically improved air quality, leading to documented improvements in public health and generating over $2 trillion in benefits for the American people, and creating markets for clean and energy efficient technologies that are now in use worldwide. Some of the current dialog is eerily familiar. Recent quotes from Chairman Joe Barton (R-TX) as he “welcomed” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to what he promised would be the first of many “oversight” hearings echoed the language he used the last time the Republicans were in control of the House and he occupied the chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee. In 2004, I was the Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation and organized industry opponents were trying to undo the provisions of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments that for the first time required major industrial polluters to install in-stack monitoring equipment and face stiff federal penalties for violations of their permit limits. The same coalition fought to strip EPA of authority to limit toxic air contaminants or require states to update their federally-enforceable plans to meet health standards through simple measures like cleaner fuels and periodic smog testing for older vehicles.

As a current and former state air agency official with 35 years of experience in a state that has often challenged EPA’s implementation and interpretation of the law, I do not support efforts to strip the agency of its authority over those air contaminants that are contributing the largest share to the global problem of climate change. Of course we would prefer comprehensive federal legislation to address the problem with new tools and incentives. But that is not what the sponsors of this bill are proposing. They wish to bury the entire topic. Ironically, the Clean Air Act is already reducing greenhouse gas emissions from mobile and stationary sources with remarkable cost effectiveness. The current phasing-in of more stringent federal health standards for ozone and fine particles yields, at no additional cost, real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions along with the intended reductions in premature deaths and illnesses, lost workdays, and health care costs. The great success of the Clean Air Act—conveniently ignored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—has been its ability to catalyze innovation that achieves emission reductions faster and more cheaply than industry expected. Rigorous, performance-based standards, with long lead times and phase-in periods, have allowed industry to unleash engineering ingenuity on emission controls and implement them cost-effectively. The rules have consistently been less burdensome, less costly and more beneficial than even supporters expected.

Some of the most cost-effective smog-control measures and dramatic percentage reductions in smog -forming pollutants, like catalytic converters on vehicle tailpipes and the requirement for unleaded gasoline, occurred early in the Act’s history. The same thing is happening as the car companies begin tackling climate-altering pollution. Improvements in manufacturing techniques and off-the-shelf technologies are already beginning to improve fuel economy and save consumers money at the pump. EPA’s technical expertise and existing regulatory programs offer the best available strategies to accelerate the nation’s transition to clean, efficient, and secure energy. The most developed and deployable of these measures—those affecting vehicles, fuels, and power plants—also are the ones most important to launch as soon as possible.

Our first exposure to the new EPA permitting process for major sources of carbon emissions was encouraging. The Russell City Energy Plant, being built by Calpine Corporation in partnership with GE Energy, was approved last year with the nation’s first carbon pollution limits determined in the Best Available Control Technology (BACT) process before it was required by EPA. The Russell City Energy Plant is a model energy development—sensible, predictable carbon regulation under the Clean Air Act provided Calpine the certainty it needed to invest and create jobs now. EPA’s greenhouse gas emission standards for passenger vehicles and light trucks are a bright spot. These vehicles are responsible for 20 percent of carbon pollution and the majority of our oil dependence and trade imbalance. Starting with the 2012 model year, automakers must improve the average fleet-wide efficiency of their cars and passenger trucks by roughly 5 percent each year until they reach the rough equivalent of 35.5 miles a gallon in 2016. The change is estimated to save 1.8 billion barrels of oil in the vehicles’ lifetime and cut carbon emissions by 960 million metric tons in the same period—the equivalent of removing 50 million cars from the road. Because auto manufacturers can meet the rules using existing technologies, consumers will not be paying much more for the more efficient vehicles—perhaps spending an extra $950 by 2016. And the fuel savings over the life of the vehicle will more than make up for those added costs, averaging $3,000 in net savings.

The failure of Congress to address carbon emissions is already undermining America’s competitiveness and increasing uncertainty for investors in the fast-growing global market for clean and efficient energy technologies. By gutting the Clean Air Act, the proposed legislation would send a stark message that our nation is abandoning the most successful environmental program in our history in what will ultimately be a futile attempt to save the dinosaurs. •••