Lawmakers in Raleigh could decide Wednesday whether North Carolina will become one of a handful of states that will ignore new federal limits on emissions of carbon dioxide from power plants.
The expected debate in the state Senate could make North Carolina a testing ground for the nation’s first attempt to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to propose the limits next month, giving states a year to come up with compliance strategies or default to a plan created by the EPA.
The state Senate is set to debate the EPA requirement that North Carolina reduce the emissions by nearly 40 percent by 2030. The state House voted three months ago to direct state environmental authorities to develop a compliance plan, but a Senate committee last week scrapped that idea. If the Senate plots a new policy course to do little or nothing, the issue would have to go back to the House to become state law.
One of the leading critics of the EPA’s “Clean Power Plan” is North Carolina’s top environmental regulator, Donald van der Vaart, secretary of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Van der Vaart is convinced the EPA’s carbon dioxide strategy will be thrown out by the courts, and it would be a waste of time and money for North Carolina to redraw its energy policy until the legal status of the federal program is resolved.
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“If the EPA wants to transform America’s power system by forcing a round peg into a square hole,” van der Vaart said in Congressional testimony in March, “it should have the prudence to allow the final rule to be reviewed by the courts before requiring states to undertake such a Herculean effort.”
The EPA is giving states four ways to reduce CO2 emissions from power plants, the nation’s single largest source of greenhouse gas. One option – retrofitting power plants to make them more efficient – is the only approach that van der Vaart thinks can withstand a legal challenge and the only one worth following at this time.
However, critics say it would also be the most expensive option here because North Carolina has been upgrading or phasing out coal-burning power plants for more than a decade, leaving little opportunity for more improvement. The state “already has the most efficient coal generation fleet in the United States,” according to the Public Staff, the state’s consumer advocacy agency in utility rate matters.
Environmental activists are frustrated that the the state’s environmental agency is not endorsing the EPA’s position.
“You have a Southern state saying EPA is giving us too much flexibility and we prefer the most expensive option to comply,” said Molly Diggins, N.C. director of the Sierra Club. “Van der Vaart’s comments suggest he wishes to provoke litigation.”
DENR says that upgrading power plants, an option called “building block one” in EPA lingo, may prove to be the least expensive.
“It is precisely because the Clean Air Act allows us to take cost into account and the fact that we have the most efficient fleet in the nation that building block one will likely be the least expensive option,” said DENR spokeswoman Crystal Feldman by email.
Charlotte-based Duke Energy, the nation’s largest electric utility company, warns that the EPA’s carbon dioxide program would transform the nation’s electricity markets, costing the company billions of dollars in losses on pollution controls and other upgrades made on coal plants that would have to be shut down prematurely.
“We support the reduction of carbon emissions and obviously we’ve done a lot of work in that area already,” said Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan. “We support policies that call for reasonable decreases of greenhouse gases over time, but it has to be balanced with impact on our customers and with reliability.”
The EPA also suggests meeting the new CO2 limits through other measures: by increasing energy efficiency programs that reduce energy demand, increasing renewable energy resources, and switching from coal to natural gas. North Carolina has been on this course for years and most of the low-hanging fruit has been picked, the Public Staff wrote in comments to the EPA.
For example, Duke Energy has spent more than $3 billion building new natural gas plants, and the state is now the fourth-largest in the nation in terms of solar energy with 984 megawatts of solar farms and rooftop panels.