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First Do No Harm: Making Sure an Energy Bill Doesn't Fuel Even More Global Warming

As the President and Senators consider their options on energy and climate legislation, it’s important to be clear about what will move the country forward and what will move it backward.  Will our leaders put us on the road towards the carbon pollution cuts desperately needed to take back control of our economic, environmental, and national security, or will they drive in the wrong direction and make matters even worse?

As my colleague Dan Lashof shows here, the Senate can at least get us started towards the economy-wide carbon pollution reductions we need, by adopting a cap on utilities and other stationary sources along with robust policies to save oil and curb emissions from the transportation system.  These measures could get more than half way to the 2-billion-ton cut in carbon dioxide emissions needed by 2020 to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. 

That won’t get across the goal line, but it’s a start.  And it’s certainly more carbon reductions than any “energy-only” bill would deliver.

There are other good things that can be done to improve energy efficiency and boost clean energy sources, as my colleague Jim Presswood shows here.

But there are some things that the Senate absolutely must avoid – things that would actually dig a deeper carbon pollution hole.  The Senate bill must not include measures that increase carbon emissions, take away the laws already on the books to cut those emissions, or weaken other protections for public health and the environment.

Unless It Includes a Cap, an Energy Bill Could Make Carbon Emissions Even Worse

Unless the overall Senate bill includes a cap on stationary source emissions, some energy bill provisions would actually make carbon emissions worse.  Here are four examples:

Electric transmission capacity.  The American Clean Energy Leadership Act (ACELA) calls for running new electricity transmission lines between the Great Plains and big urban areas.  Carbon pollution will go down if those lines carry power from new wind farms.  But it will increase if the power comes from new coal power plants.  Unless there’s a cap to cut carbon emissions, increasing this transmission capacity will likely increase those emissions, because there will be more new coal power plants, and fewer wind farms, tying into the new transmission wires. 

Electrifying the vehicle fleet.  Unless there’s a cap, incentives to electrify the motor vehicle fleet could increase, not decrease, carbon pollution.  Plug-in hybrids and other electric vehicles can help cut our oil dependence.  They will lower carbon emissions too if the power they use comes from low-carbon electricity sources.  But if vehicle electricity use is expanded without firm carbon limits, there will be more emissions from coal power plants – in some cases more than the amount we cut from the vehicles themselves.

Dirtier transportation fuels.  The ACELA bill would weaken the environmental performance required of transportation fuels purchased by the federal government.  The U.S. Air Force has goals to procure about 400 million gallons of synthetic jet fuel by 2016.  If oil from tar sands or other dirty fuels are used to meet the Air Force goals, carbon emissions could increase by 5-10 million tons.  More dirty crude coming from Canadian tar sands also means more carbon emissions from U.S. refineries, because that crude takes more energy to refine.  So if there’s no cap on refinery emissions, their carbon emissions will go up as we use dirtier fuels.   

Bioenergy.  Energy and climate legislation should not ignore the carbon emissions and other environmental impacts of burning biomass for electricity or motor fuel. 

  • Legislation should not undermine existing Clean Air Act requirements for a full lifecycle accounting of the carbon emissions from producing and using biofuels – including market-driven impacts such as international deforestation.  Legislation also should not tamper with existing environmental performance standards or definitions that establish sourcing guidelines to protect federal forests, sensitive ecosystems, and wildlife habitat.  Without safeguards, burning biomass for energy risks serious environmental degradation and will put more carbon pollution in the atmosphere, not less.
  • Energy legislation must not treat corn ethanol as an “advanced” biofuels under the Renewable Fuel Standard.  The purpose of the “advanced” biofuels provisions is to bring cleaner, more efficient next generation biofuels into the market, not to lavish ever more giveaways on established corn ethanol.
  • For the same reason, legislation should not give big oil a costly, counterproductive tax credit (the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit or “VEETC”) for buying and blending the amounts of corn ethanol that refiners are already required by law to use.  Instead of doling out tens of billions to big oil companies and old corn ethanol plants, Congress should support emerging and more competitive energy technologies – non-polluting wind, solar, geothermal and advanced biofuels – that create many more times the green jobs we need and far less pollution.     

Energy Legislation Must Preserve EPA’s Authority to Curb Carbon Pollution

When it wrote the nation’s clean air law in 1970, Congress addressed more than the dangerous air pollutants known at the time.  It also gave the Environmental Protection Agency the tools and the responsibility to protect the public when science shows that new pollutants pose dangers to health or the environment.  The Supreme Court upheld this authority in its landmark 2007 global warming decision, Massachusetts v. EPA.  

The Senate wisely rejected Senator Lisa Murkowski’s bid last month to flout the science, overturn the Supreme Court’s decision, and block EPA from carrying out the law of the land.  But many industries are still hoping for Clean Air Act exemptions. 

Over the last year, the push for exemptions from Clean Air Act authority has been framed in the context of enacting an economy-wide cap to cut overall carbon pollution.  To those who ask “why have both?” the answer is that history demonstrates the value of having both a cap and complementary emissions performance standards.  That combination has worked for 20 years for the sulfur dioxide emissions that cause acid rain.  While we’ve testified that some parts of the Clean Air Act – the national ambient standards and hazardous emission standards – might not be well suited for carbon pollution, it is critical to keep performance standards for both new and existing sources, even with a cap, to guarantee at least a threshold level of investment in modernizing American industry and making it more competitive.    

But now some of the biggest carbon polluters have the gall to ask “why have either?”  Not only would big oil and others like to avoid a carbon cap, they also want to roll back existing law.

The Senate must tell them to forget about it.  It is outrageous to suggest that the biggest industries responsible for global warming pollution should be subject to neither a cap nor standards under existing law.  The effort to pass legislation to solve global warming must not end up making it worse by repealing existing law.

No Clean Air Rollbacks for Power Plant Soot, Smog, and Toxic Air Pollutants

A bill to tackle the pollutants that are driving global warming is no excuse for rolling back public health protections for other pollutants.  Yet power companies are looking for exemptions or extensions from already long-overdue Clean Air Act requirements to curb the other dangerous pollutants that exact a horrific toll of death and illness each year.

Power plant air pollution is responsible for an estimated 20,000-24,000 deaths annually.  This pollution is also linked to tens of thousands of heart attacks, hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks and other cardiac problems, and tens of thousands of emergency room visits, hospitalizations and lost work days each year.  This toll will be reduced significantly when Clean Air Act deadlines arrive for cleaning up deadly smog, soot, and toxic air pollution in 2012 and 2015. 

Several proposals have already surfaced to delay or eliminate these Clean Air Act cleanup requirements.  For instance, S.3464, sponsored by Senator Richard Lugar, would make exemptions available to any power company that signs a contract with EPA to shut down an electric generating unit by the start of 2019.  Without these “regulatory relief” provisions, many plant operators will decide to retire some of their old and dirty coal plants by 2015 or before, after concluding that it is not economically sensible to equip them with the pollution control equipment needed to meet the coming standards.  As I have explained here, the Lugar bill would give them four or more extra years – and possibly longer – to keep operating without curbing their smog, soot, and toxic air pollution.  A provision in the American Power Act, proposed by Senators John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman, would open the door to similar exemptions (see here).

The American people have waited for long enough to curb the toll of death and illness from power plants’ other pollutants.  Now the big power companies are proposing, like the Devil to Dr. Faustus, that Americans trade off their health as the price of the companies’ reducing their global warming pollution.  No deal.


When President Obama and members of the Senate return from the Independence Day break, they will face a choice on what kind of future to deliver the American people.  One path – climate and energy legislation – can make good on decades of unmet promises to break the nation’s addiction to oil, clean up the air we breathe, and win the clean energy race.  The other path will deliver nothing more than another piecemeal, dirty energy bill that will set the country backwards, not forwards. The choice should be obvious.        

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Jesse Jenkins's picture
Jesse Jenkins on Jul 7, 2010

NRDC et al. keep rejecting any substantive steps forward that lack a “hard cap” on emissions, yet they’ve already cedeing anything resembling a hard, binding cap in their negotiations with industry stakeholdres and Congress critters.  The Waxman-Markey bill passed the House loaded with enough offsets to render the cap completely non-binding on covered sectors.  The Kerry-Lieberman draft bill is the same.  And any utility-sector only bill is likely to include just as many offsets, yet cover just about one-third of U.S. emissions.  It’s never been a real “cap” on emissions, just an emissions target and a (pretty modest) price signal. Call it “visor-and-trade” really.  And with that as the bar set by “cap” and trade legislation, I don’t think it’d be hard to get even better outcomes — faster transformation of the U.S. energy sector, faster clean energy innovation, and even faster emissions cuts — with a new game plan.  A series of proactive energy-only measures can move the ball substantively forward before time runs out this year, avoid ceding major concessions (like EPA regulatory authority), and position things for a new strategy next year that marries low but steadily rising carbon prices to raise revenues with a series of proactive and comprehensive investments in energy technology innovation and deployment.  Or we can keep chasing the failed USCAP strategy down the rabbit hole…

Dan Yurman's picture
Dan Yurman on Jul 8, 2010

NRDC has me scratching my head about its desire for transmission lines from the central plains to the major midwestern cities to be built solely to support wind farms.  That idea could result in very expensive electricity.  As NRDC knows well, wind farms are highly variable in their ability to generate electricity.  Also, as NRDC knows, tramission lines are like the New Jersey Turnpike. Users have to pay tolls to move along it and wind farms have to pay to put their juice on the lines.

It follows that if juice is only flowing reliably 30% of the time, the top end capacity of wind farms, then the other 70% of the grid is lying idle and not producing revenue for the investors in the grid. This gap allocates the costs back to the 30% guys and bumps the cost of wind power delivered to rate payers into the range of $0.25/kW/Hr.

The answer is that wind farm electricity moves toward cost competitiveness by riding on grids built to move electricity from base load sources such as nuclear power plants.  If I was a wind farm developer, I’d look for grids in place that moved power from a reactor.  The reason is I’d be buying the marginal surplus capacity of the grid that was being allocated to the utility owning the reactor. 

Do the math. Why pay for 70% of the cost of building a grid you can’t use when you could buy 5% of a grid already in place?

Exit 11 on the NJ Turnpike is the Garden State Parkway.

Jesse Jenkins's picture
Jesse Jenkins on Jul 9, 2010

For those interested, I’ve posted a longer reply/rebuttal to Doniger here, in defense of a (good) “energy-only” bill.

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