Carbon Emissions "Not a Factor" When Approving Coal Plants, EPA Administrator Says

Thomas Schueneman

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Stephen Johnson released a 19-page memo last Thursday claiming that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant subject to regulation when permitting coal-fired power plants.


Johnson's reasoning goes against a ruling made by his own agency, when the EPA's Environmental Appeals Board rejected a permit from a regional EPA office in Denver for a 110 megawatt plant on the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation in Utah. The three-judge panel denied the permit saying that the regional office failed to support its decision to approve the plant without requiring it to have the best CO2 controls available, further directing the office to think again about its determination that the controls not be put in place.

Johnson's memorandum of last Thursday uses the very same logic that EPA Appeals Board rejected from the Denver office last November.

The board's decision is also in accordance with the 2007 Supreme Court Ruling directing the EPA to regulate CO2 as a pollutant.

None of this stopped Administrator Johnson from his "...11th hour ...transparently cynical attempt to tie the hands of the incoming administration and prevent Clean Air Act regulation of global warming pollution", said John Walke, director of Natural Resources Defense Council's Clean Air Program.

It’s a marvel to behold an EPA action that so utterly disdains global warming responsibility and disdains the law at the same time,” said Walke. “EPA’s administrator is defying the agency’s own judges, the Clean Air Act, and the course of history that recognizes the urgency in tackling global warming.”

Johnson issued his memo just one day after scientists at the annual conference of the American Geophysical Union warned that the degree humanity effectively deals with climate change is the degree to which we deal with coal. A major concern is that as oil and gas reserves decline, instead of naturally limiting greenhouse gas emissions as some have thought, it will lead to development of coal-to-liquid technologies and and unconventional fossil fuels such as methane hydrates, tar sands, oil shale. Coal and unconventional fuels are by far the dirtiest in terms of emissions per unit of energy output.

Limiting coal burning and avoiding the use of liquified coal use, while developing as rapidly as possible renewable energy sources, is essential to avoid possible catastrophic consequences of global warming.

Addressing the climate problem means addressing the coal problem," said Ken Caldeira, a scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. "Whether there's a little more oil or a little less oil will change the details, but if we want to change the overall shape of the warming curve, it matters what we do with coal."

It apparently doesn't matter to outgoing EPA administrator Stephen Johnson. "Outgoing" is the bright spot in this story. I've made it no secret what I (and many, many others) think of Stephen Johnson's tenure at the EPA.

NRDC's John Walke sums it up:

The ultimate consolation, however, is that today’s EPA offense is so ham-handed, so divorced from the law, that it can and should be reversed by the Obama administration with the stroke of a pen.”

I'm not sure who I'll miss more. George Bush or Stephen Johnson.

Listen to NASA scientist Dr. Pushker Kharecha discuss various carbon futures

Stephen Johnson's full memorandum


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