Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Carbon Regulations: Not What They Seem to Be

Carbon Dioxide
from Wikipedia
The Rules Are Backwards

When the EPA came out with its proposed regulation for carbon dioxide abatement, my first impression was that the rules were political, backwards, and unenforceable. That's still my opinion.

Since I had a very firm opinion,  I immediately wrote an op-ed for my local paper, the Valley News.  I sent the op-ed to several other papers also.   I think the easiest place to read my article and write comments is at Vermont Digger: Carbon Emission Confusion.

What do I mean by "backwards"?  Well, in my opinion, if the electricity sector of a state uses a lot of coal and produces a lot of carbon dioxide---that is the state to target for large reductions.

And why are the rules written by state, anyway? High-carbon producing areas  should be targeted for large reductions.  In the earlier Clean Air Act regulations, the regulations were stricter in non-attainment areas.  That is, if an area did not attain EPA standards for air quality, that area had to implement more stringent controls.  This made sense to me.

The new proposed EPA carbon rules seem to be founded on the reverse principal.  The EPA asks low-carbon-producing states (for example, Washington State and New Hampshire) to reduce their utility carbon footprint by 40 to 70%. They ask high-carbon-producing states (for example, West Virginia) to reduce their carbon footprints by less than 20%.

It's backwards.

Ambiguity in the Goal and in the Rules

At ANS Nuclear Cafe, Jim Hopf does a more careful analysis of the new rules, complete with a map.    He notes some fundamental ambiguities in the EPA documents:
EPA Proposes Power Sector CO2 Emissions Reduction Plan.

Even after reading most of the press releases and other documents on the EPA website and elsewhere, I have been unable to determine with certainty if the national reduction quoted above is a 26–30 percent reduction in actual, absolute emissions (in tons per year), or a reduction in emissions per MW-hr generated. The EPA refers to a 26–30 percent reduction in “CO2 emissions” (suggesting an absolute emissions reduction), but all state requirements are given in units of emissions (tons) per MW-hr.

Hopf notes that the EIA predicts electricity use in the U.S. will grow by about 25% between 2012 and 2030, so the difference between "total U.S. CO2" and "per-kWh CO2" can be  significant.

Hopf does see one potential bright side (or maybe it isn't a bright side). Gas and coal plants are comparatively easy to mothball for a while, and then bring back to service.  Hopf writes that EPA policy may lock in the switch from coal to gas:

Perhaps the main impact of the proposed policy..... is that it cements current plans and policies, and prevents any back-tracking. The most significant example of this concerns the use of gas vs. coal. Without the policy, utilities will go right back to coal if the cost of natural gas rises. The EPA policies will essentially disallow switching back from gas to coal,...And they will do so even if natural gas prices rise in the future; a very important point.

Follow the Money

I hesitate to write this, because it seems so cynical.  But here goes.

I recently finished the book Extortion by Peter Schweitzer. The subtitle of this book is "How politicians extract your money, buy votes, and line their own pockets." This is a very depressing read. The book is very well researched: it is not an "opinion piece." Some parts of the book echo my blog post about the way that Vermont Yankee was a sitting duck for special fee assessments for Vermont (Millions for education, but not one cent for tribute).  However, Schweitzer looked mainly at the national level.

One part of Schweitzer's book seemed very relevant to the carbon rules. Schweitzer explains how complex regulations are lucrative for the people who write them.   Indeed, the rules for carbon abatement are complex, non-intuitive, lengthy and probably (but not certainly) internally inconsistent.  According to Schweitzer, these are hallmarks of legislation that is a perfect set-up for extortion.  (Note: Schweitzer's book was published before the carbon rules were promulgated, and does not discuss these particular rules.)

In the future, somebody is going to have to explain these regulations. Some lawyers are going to be hired to help states and utilities comply with these rules.  Who will these people be?

The people responsible for writing the rules are the people who will probably be hired to help companies comply with them.   Schweitzer explains that there is even a short-hand term for this: "cashing in." A person serves in the government, this person writes (or at least learns) a complicated set of laws or regulations, then the person "cashes in."  She joins the private sector and gets big bucks for helping companies comply with the rules she wrote.

I hope I am wrong.  This is deeply depressing. If I have the correct slant on this, these rules are not about carbon at all.  As I said, I hope I am wrong.

Always Leave Them Laughing

To end on a lighter note, let me link to The Onion's excellent description of the new rules: New EPA Regulations Would Force Power Plants To Find 30% More Loopholes by 2030.

1 comment:

Howard Shaffer said...

Great post.

Talk about lawyers etc. there are the NRC's Fire Protection Regulations. The NRC panicked and overkilled based on a fire at a Brown's Ferry plant in 1975. The regulatory mess created has been going on for decades. It is grist for the anti nukes mill.