Brian Lehrer: It's The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC. Good morning again, everyone, and thanks again for all your donations in this one-hour fundraiser instead of the whole day. First day of the spring membership drive is now over, yay.
Now our climate story of the week, which we're doing on Tuesdays on the show all this year. Last Thursday, the Biden administration announced the first of its kind proposed regulations to limit greenhouse pollution from power plants. It's the latest in a series of climate policies that aim to halve US emissions by 2030 compared with 2005 levels.
Joining me now to discuss the latest in our climate segment of the week is Michael Burger, executive director of Columbia University's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. Welcome to WNYC. Thank you so much for coming on, Michael.
Michael Burger: Thanks for having me, Brian.
Brian Lehrer: There are about 3,400 coal and gas-fired power plants in the United States according to The New York Times. Just how big of a deal is this rule assuming it's upheld?
Michael Burger: Well, this rule is a very big deal. As you mentioned, the rule is a key part of the Biden administration's plan and its ability to meet this pledge to halve emissions by 50% by 2030, and eventually gets to net zero greenhouse gas emissions economy-wide by 2050, which is the ultimate goal. This pledge, it's important. It's not just a political statement. It's consistent with what the science tells us is necessary in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
Now, power plants were long the leading emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. A few years ago, that was overtaken by transportation, but they're still responsible for about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions here. As you think about the electrification of other sectors including transportation, the growth of electric vehicles, the electrification of cooking, the electrification of heating in buildings, the demand ends on power plants are going to increase, and so reducing emissions at those sources is absolutely essential. This rule is just a key part of the government's ability to achieve that goal.
Brian Lehrer: To be clear, there have been other policies aimed at cleaning up power plant emissions before. There's something new here, right?
Michael Burger: That's right. There was, of course, the earlier attempt by the Obama administration to impose greenhouse gas emissions regulations on power plants. That was known as the Clean Power Plan. That was the subject of some big-ticket litigation a few years back, but over the 50-plus years of the Clean Air Act's existence, the federal government has regulated what are known as criteria pollutants and hazardous pollutants. The regulation of greenhouse gas emissions is still new.
Brian Lehrer: These regulations are not mandating that carbon is captured before it leaves the plants. It's a cap on pollution rates as I read it in The New York Times. What's the difference?
Michael Burger: Well, it's a cap on emission rates of greenhouse gases. It's not a scrubber that they're going to put on smokestacks that's going to result in emissions reductions, but it is-- what EPA has done here is it has set standards for new gas-fired power plants, and what are called emission guidelines for existing coal-fired power plants and existing gas-fired power plants. What they've done is they've looked at the available technology, and made a decision about what they call under the statute, the best system of emission reduction, which is a technical thing that takes into consideration the availability of the technology, cost, and a number of other factors.
What EPA did in this particular instance is quite technical, and it's quite complex, and I'll try and make it quite simple. They created different subcategories of power plants based on whether they burn gas or whether they burn coal, and whether they have one or another level of frequency of use, and what their anticipated lifetime is. Coal plants that are anticipated to be shut down in the next five or six years are treated differently under the rule than those coal-fired power plants that the owners anticipate will continue to run beyond 2040.
They looked at all of these factors, and they determined that the best system of emission reduction would be the installation of carbon capture and sequestration technology at existing coal-fired power plants that will continue past 2040. That carbon capture and sequestration along with co-firing of what's known as green hydrogen, or low carbon hydrogen, is the best system for natural gas-fired power plants, both new and existing ones.
Once EPA sets those standards, the standards for new plants and the emission guidelines for existing power plants, it then becomes a matter for the states to set their standards and for the existing power plants to actually come into compliance. Ultimately, it's left to the states and the power plants to develop the concrete plans for implementation and compliance. This ultimately allows a great deal of flexibility, or at least allows some deal of flexibility for states that have their own economic interests, and for power plants' owners who are closest to it to figure out what the best, most efficient way to achieve the emission standards are.
Brian Lehrer: If this, first of all, is implemented, and we'll talk about a challenge that might wind up at the US Supreme Court like some other Biden and Obama climate policies have, but if it's implemented, how much of a contribution do you at the Sabin Center at Columbia expect this to make to the country's overall climate reduction goal by 2030?
Michael Burger: It's anticipated that this rule will result in the closure of some small number of coal-fired power plants that might otherwise not shut down, but it is also calculated, EPA did the calculations, that the costs to consumers are going to be minimal, and the ultimate benefits to public health, the environment and the climate will far exceed whatever costs there are.
In terms of implementation and whether this is going to actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions, if the rule continues as proposed, and at this point it is a proposed rule, it's not a final rule that's undergoing notice and comment for the next 60 days at least, so if the final rule looks like the proposed rule, yes, the climate benefits are anticipated to be significant. It won't be enough to achieve the 50% by 2030 or the net zero goal in and of itself, but it is a key part of the overall plan that the administration is implementing, which includes greenhouse gas emissions, regulations on vehicles, on industry, on aviation and on other emitting sources together with the policies, tax incentives and other measures that are taking place and being promoted through the Inflation Reduction Act.
Brian Lehrer: Can you remind people what percentage of greenhouse gas emissions come from power plants?
Michael Burger: The most recent greenhouse gas emissions inventory from the Environmental Protection Agency had it at 25% of the nation's overall emissions. Transportation is 28%, and industry, manufacturing is 23%. Those are the three main sectors.
Brian Lehrer: Now, given the Supreme Court's decision last year in West Virginia versus EPA, interesting that it was West Virginia, we all know the reasons that it's West Virginia, coal, Manchin, things like that, that Supreme Court ruling established the so-called major questions doctrine and limited the scope of EPA's discretion to address climate change under the old Clean Air Act. Is this proposed rule in its current version likely to wind up at the Supreme Court too?
Michael Burger: Well, the proposed rule won't wind up at the Supreme Court, but the final rule may well wind up at the Supreme Court. We'll, of course, have to wait and see, but what I will say is that the rule that we have in front of us now was shaped in core ways by the West Virginia versus EPA decision. The Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration rule, took a systemic approach to developing these standards, making this determination about the best system of emission reductions. This rule does not take a systemic approach. It doesn't look at the whole electricity grid and all of the power plants. and how they work together. It takes more of a traditional technology-based approach. Looking squarely at individual power plants and considering and then ultimately prescribing specific technologies, carbon capture and sequestration, and green hydrogen.
The major question doctrine remains somewhat undefined. It's somewhat elusive. The court has not plainly stated the exact criteria that it will apply in determining what exactly a major question is in every instance. It does have something of a "we'll know it when we see it" feel about it. In that earlier decision, the court did not raise the prospect that EPA regulating greenhouse gas emissions is in and of itself a major question. The issue was the way in which EPA went about interpreting how to determine what the best system of emission reduction is.
The proposed rule seems to fit squarely in EPA's traditional authority utilized as its traditional approaches, and so I would say is far less likely and really ought not to raise the Supreme Court's concern under that doctrine or any other.
Brian Lehrer: Listeners, if you're just joining us, we're in our climate story of the week, which we do every Tuesday here on the Brian Lehrer Show all this year. Our guest is Michael Burger, Executive Director of Columbia University's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. He's helping us understand this new proposal from the Biden administration, which just came out last week that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly from power plants, in some new kinds of ways.
Listeners, if you have a question or a comment about this, maybe somebody listening right now even works at a power plant or in the industry, 212-433-WNYC, 212-433-9692.
Michael, one argument against combating climate change too quickly has in the past focused on preserving jobs in the coal industry.
According to West Virginia public broadcasting coal mine employment stood at just below 12,000 in 2021, the lowest number since 1890, while production climbed from 72 million tons to 90 million tons a year. Wearing your political analyst hat if you can, is preserving jobs or creating new green jobs a major part of this conversation?
Michael Burger: Of course. I think the question of jobs in economic development is essential to the political conversation around climate change. You mentioned that there are 12,000 jobs in the coal industry right now. There are 3.2 million Americans that are employed in the renewable energy sector right now. Renewable energy is in extreme growth mode. 40% of jobs in the US energy sector are renewable energy jobs right now. It's growing in part as a result of the Inflation Reduction Act and increased investments. It's growing because we need ultimately to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The transition to renewable energy is a necessary critical and central part of that.
It's an interesting question in the context of this proposed rule, which is not really about jobs in and of itself. It's more of a top-down command and control regulatory approach to addressing pollution from a particular emission source. The best system of emissions reduction, the definition of that term, does need to take into account costs. The EPA does do an analysis that looks at the economic impacts of the regulation. All of that factors into the consideration. This is where EPA came out on that analysis is the benefits of the rule far outweigh, the costs of it.
That being said, there does remain the question of what about work industry across the board. I think that creating jobs and providing for a just transition for those workers is essential consideration for the Biden administration, even if it's not front and center in this rule.
Brian Lehrer: Let's take a phone call. Jan in Manhattan, you're on WNYC. Hi, Jan?
Jan: Hi, this is Jan. I can't believe you called me first. The carbon capture and sequestration is a total myth. It uses fuel to be able to capture. Of course, it's the oil companies solution. It puts carbon dioxide in pipelines and if they burst, which did happen last-- sometime recently in Mississippi there was I think on NPR [unintelligible 00:15:31] considered just last week about this. Then the whole bearing of it is another myth because invariably it's going to leak and cause all sorts of other problems.
Brian Lehrer: Thank you. Do you agree that carbon capture is a myth? Is this even a carbon capture plan?
Michael Burger: I don't agree that carbon capture is a myth. Seven years ago, I authored what's called an amicus brief, a friend of the court brief, on behalf of a dozen leading carbon capture and sequestration and utilization scientists at leading universities from around the United States in support of the Obama administration's rule for regulating greenhouse gas emissions from new gas-fired power plants.
Even back then, the leading scientists' view was that the technology and the scientific understanding was adequately demonstrated to support that regulation, which also relied on carbon capture as a basis for setting the standard for new power plants.
The knowledge and understanding of the technology, its deployability has continued to grow over time. As I understand it, the main obstacle to widespread deployment of CCS as it's often referred to, has been economics. The economics of it for plant owners and the costs have just not justified the implementation and there hasn't been any regulation requiring it. There are tax credits and other incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act that are directly supportive of the further development of CCS.
That fact was a consideration in the analysis undertaken by EPA in doing this. As the costs come down and as the technology itself improves, deployment will become more and more efficient, and more and more cost-effective. That's all part of the plan.
Now, of course, there are legitimate concerns about the infrastructure that needs to be developed there. There's no question that the infrastructure for widespread carbon capture and sequestration and utilization does not currently exist. It will be built and there will be very real safety concerns around the integrity of pipelines and the durability of long-term sequestration. That is an issue that ultimately is, from a legal perspective, in the agency's discretion. It's in their technical expertise. I think that the idea of this rule is that while it's not a perfect system at the moment, over the course of time it will be the best system that's available.
Brian Lehrer: Tom in [unintelligible 00:18:27] you're on WNYC. Hi, Tom?
Tom: Hi. I'd like to know if the new rule addresses natural gas leaks from pipelines. The emission factors of natural gas-fired power plants could be lowered a lot if the leaks were simply patched, since methane's a much more potent greenhouse gas. I want to know if that's on the radar.
Brian Lehrer: Michael, do you know?
Michael Burger: I don't know offhand. I'd have to dig into the rule to see how or whether, and if so, how leaks from pipelines are treated. Brian, I'm sorry I just want to take one quick jump step back to the previous question, where I was talking about the anticipation that CCS will be the best system.
I just want to note that, there will be some closures of coal-fired power plants. Ultimately, power producers may well decide that renewable energy is the more cost-effective way to go rather than implementation of CCS in individual plants. I think that many owners may well make that decision and we'll see increased renewables rather than increased fossil fuel production as a result of [unintelligible 00:19:50].
Brian Lehrer: Does it matter what part of the country, how much it's going to wind up being okay or at least attempted to continue to rely on fossil fuels but capture the carbon, as we've been talking about? I see where the argument that's prominent now is about meeting demand and particularly for rural areas.
The bulk of our listeners in Greater New York may not be directly affected by this, but The New York Times recently quoted Jim Matheson, President of The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, that power plants serving the nation's least developed communities, as he put it, are at risk from this.
From what I've read, it's true in some states that the majority of rural power comes from coal. West Virginia, for example, 88% of its energy came from coal in 2022, according to Politico. How has the administration said it's going to ensure that some of the least developed communities, as they put it, are going to still have access to a reliable source of energy?
Michael Burger: Well as proposed, the first requirements of this rule don't really hit until 2030. As I mentioned earlier, there are different pieces of the rule affects different sized power plants with different lifespans at different times. There's no immediate threat that this regulation would have any immediate impact on power plants serving remote areas.
EPA has deeply analyzed the role of this rule in ensuring continued grid reliability, I believe in all locations. Look, there's some truth to the idea that we need to protect reliability and that the transition to renewable energy, and the implementation of new technologies and emerging technologies may cause some concern and needs to address the need for grid reliability. These are really properly considered technical issues, not political ones. Oftentimes, I think we hear this conversation phrased as much more of a political issue than a technical one.
What consumers need is electricity. They don't need electricity from climate-change-causing fossil fuels. They can get it from renewables, or they can get it from fossil fuel power plants that adequately protect the environment through the installation and implementation of available technologies, which EPA here has proposed include CCS and the use of green hydrogen.
Brian Lehrer: One more call, I think a climate concern listener who thinks the Biden administration isn't doing enough. Sharon, you're on WNYC. Hello.
Sharon: Yes, I'm in the middle of cooking, so I may have to make it brief. I just want to know what- would you please address the Monday approval by the Biden administration of the Willow pipeline in Alaska, which will create 600 million barrels of crude oil over the next 30 years? How is no one screaming out about this? How did they-
Brian Lehrer: Sharon, what's the--
Brian Lehrer: It's very rare for somebody to call and say, I have to keep it short because I'm in the middle of cooking. Sharon, what's for lunch?
Sharon: No, I'm just making breakfast now.
Brian Lehrer: An important question, because it's not down the middle, like Republicans or climate conservatives are against everything Biden dies and all the climate activists are thrilled. It's a mixed bag.
Michael Burger: Well, that's right. The Willow project has been highly controversial. I've heard from my daughter and their friends about the Willow project because they're catching it on TikTok. I also know there is litigation. It's not true that nobody is screaming about this. There are people screaming about this, I think quite loudly. There are at least two lawsuits that have already been filed in Alaska challenging the decision and the administration's rationale and reasoning in making the decision to move forward with the project as approved.
Look, you're exactly right, Brian, it's not the case that everything this administration does is blessed by one side and damned by the other. These are complex and multifaceted decisions, and in the case of the Willow project, it's quite possible. In my view, it is the case that the administration went the wrong way.
Brian Lehrer: That, folks, is our climate story of the week for this week. Hopefully, we've all learned a lot, I know I have, on this mix of science and politics and law pertaining to this brand new proposed set of regulations for power plant emissions that just came out last week from the Biden administration. With everything else going on in the news right now, and of course, there's so much right now, this hasn't gotten a lot of press. This is exactly why we do a climate story of the week if this is one of the biggest issues facing humanity over the long term. Climate change moves slowly, climate regulation moves slowly. We're making sure we have a place for it once a week on this show.
It's not the most sensational story we could have done today, but we're keeping the climate story of the week front and center through this whole year to make sure it doesn't get edged out by everything else that seems more immediate. There we leave it for today with Michael Burger, executive director of Columbia University's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. Thank you so much for coming on.
Michael Burger: Thank you, Brian.
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