EPA, Curbed by Supreme Court, Falls Back on a Piecemeal Plan for Climate Change

WASHINGTON — Following the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling last week limiting the government’s ability to restrict the pollution that is causing global warming, the Biden administration is planning to use other regulatory tools in hopes of achieving similar goals.

A key part of the plan: further restrict other pollutants that coal-burning power plants emit such as soot, mercury and nitrous oxides — a move that also will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“While the court sided with special interests trying to take the country backwards, it did not take away EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases and protect people from pollution,” Gina McCarthy, the White House climate change adviser, said in a statement, referring to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

White House officials said they believe President Biden’s goal of slashing emissions roughly in half by the end of this decade, and fully eliminate fossil fuel emissions from the power sector by 2035, still remains well within reach. The falling cost of renewable energy like wind and solar will help, administration officials said, as well as an increasing number of policies at the state and levels to fight climate change, along with the new EPA regulations.

Still, the federal government’s piecemeal approach, which is still taking shape, could make it tougher to achieve its goals, many observers said. Power plants that burn fossil fuels are one of the single largest contributors of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, which is rapidly warming the planet.

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision, which concluded that the EPA lacks broad authority to transform the nation’s electrical system away from fossil fuels, has left the Biden administration bereft of a powerful tool, energy experts said. The ruling did not strip the EPA of its authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, but it allows only narrower policies to regulate how individual power plants operate.

That means the administration’s backup strategies are not likely to spur a rapid metamorphosis to clean energy unless the administration acts quickly and aggressively, experts said. “This year and early next are critically important for whether or not the goals the administration has set — both for the power sector and the economy as a whole — are going to be reachable,” said John Larsen, a partner at the Rhodium Group, an energy research and consulting firm.

Mr. Larsen said the Biden administration will have to enact “layers and layers” of new policies rather than rely on a single sweeping program. And, he added, “they need to act soon to actually get those wheels turning.”

In an interview this week, Joseph Goffman, president Biden’s nominee for EPA’s air chief, said the agency intends to issue a proposed regulation early next year that will curb greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal-burning power plants. The EPA around the same time also will issue a proposed regulation to cut emissions from new gas-burning power plants, he said.

Mr. Goffman declined to discuss details of what either plan might include, but said the EPA has been “putting together a menu of three or four different approaches” that would fit within the Supreme Court’s mandate.

Mr. Goffman said the EPA is still analyzing the Supreme Court ruling but said it doesn’t appear to affect the agency’s current strategy. “The case did not really take anything off the menu that we’ve been focusing on,” he said.

He said the administration’s climate goals can be reached, but it will take more actions across the government, not just through the EPA “We were never going to get there other than through an ensemble of policies,” Mr. Goffman said.

The EPA also is enacting tougher restrictions on coal plants to reduce pollutants like soot and nitrous oxides, and to force the cleanup of water contamination from coal plants. Michael S. Regan, the EPA administrator, has said those and other rules will have a side-benefit of also reducing gas emissions. He also has indicated rule changes such as these might make some coal plants too expensive to continue to operate, resulting in more of them being closed down.

“By presenting all of those rules at the same time to the industry, the industry gets a chance to take a look at this suite of rules all at once and say, ‘Is it worth doubling down in investments in this current facility? Or should we look at that cost and say now it’s time to pivot and invest in a clean energy future?’,” Mr. Regan said at an oil and gas conference in March.

“If some of these facilities decide that it’s not worth investing in, and you get an expedited retirement, that’s the best tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

Coal provides about 21 percent of electricity in the United States, but accounts for more than half of all carbon dioxide emissions from power production, making it one of the dirtiest fossil fuels. About 28 percent of coal-fired capacity is expected to be retired by 2035, according to the Energy Information Administration, a change that has been driven largely by the fact that gas-burning power plants have become less expensive to operate, as has renewable energy.

One person familiar with the Biden administration’s approach said the White House believes it can achieve economywide emissions reductions of as much as 40 percent below 2005 levels by the end of this decade by tightening regulations on traditional pollutants like mercury, acid gases and particulate matter. That would get the country close to Mr. Biden’s goal of cutting emissions at least 50 percent from 2005 levels in that same time frame, said the person, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the administration’s strategy.

Environmental said they are uncertain about the Biden administration’s commitment.

“What we’re seeing right now is the Biden administration not acting with the urgency necessary,” said Weston Gobar, a spokesperson for the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of Black-led social justice and environmental groups. He called on Mr. Biden to declare a “climate emergency” under the National Emergencies Act in order to quickly build out clean energy resources, and to urge Congress to suspend the filibuster to pass climate bills.

He praised the emerging EPA strategy, noting the bulk of pollution from power plants disproportionately affects groups of color. But, he said, “It’s not enough.”

Meanwhile, when it comes to directly regulating greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, several experts said the EPA could call for blending relatively cleaner fuels, like gas or hydrogen, to bring down emissions, along with other technological fixes, such as trapping carbon dioxide from power plants before the emissions can enter the atmosphere.

Michelle Bloodworth, chief executive of America’s Power, a coal industry group, said that an aggressive agenda that drives more coal plant retirements would hurt the reliability of the electric grid.

“Electric grid officials have issued warnings about the prospect of electricity shortages and blackouts in many parts of the country, and more coal retirements would only make the situation worse,” Ms. Bloodworth said in a statement. She noted that more than 40 percent of the nation’s coal fleet has already announced plans to shut down.

Yet eliminating emissions from those plants, or pushing the power plants to move to cleaner fuels, also is critical to keeping global temperatures rising at relatively safe levels. Also key: how the EPA proposes regulating emissions from more than 90 gigawatts of new gas-burning plants that are being planned, said Leah Stokes, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Santa Barbara, California.

“That’s going to be hugely consequential for the planet,” Ms. Stocks said. “If we don’t have a plan for new gas plants, we will not meet President Biden’s goals.”

Jeffrey Holmstead, an energy lawyer who served in the EPA in both Bush administrations, said the utility companies he works with feel that new regulations on their power plants are a “sideshow” compared with the emissions cuts that could be achieved if Congress approved billions of dollars in tax credits for wind, solar and battery storage. That package is still being negotiated in Congress because of objectsions from Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, whose vote is key in the evenly divided Senate.

“It will be interesting to see how aggressively the administration moves to regulate CO2 emissions,” Mr. Holmstead said. “What’s unclear is how high a priority that will be for the agency.”

Scientists say that if warming exceeds 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, the likelihood of catastrophic consequences from climate change — severe heat waves and droughts, intensifying storms, and other crises — increases significantly. The planet has already heated by an average of about 1.1 degrees Celsius, and worldwide emissions continue to climb.

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