EPA moves forward on cleaning up carbon pollution

This January's launch of the New Year wasn’t like any other that came before it.

On Jan.2, while many people were just switching gears from holiday schedules back to their five-whole-days-of-work-every-week, no-more-Christmas-cookies-in-the-break-room, regular work schedule, something a bit more momentous was happening elsewhere - America began treating carbon pollution like what it is: pollution.

On that day, the Environmental Protection Agency finally began regulating the carbon output from new or retrofitted power plants as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.  For 40 years, the Clean Air Act has been used to clean up our skies, reducing the threat of acid rain,   improving our air quality, and protecting the public health and welfare.  Now, in the face of one of the gravest threats to public health that humanity has ever faced, the EPA is beginning the process of reducing that threat.

The EPA action to reduce carbon pollution has been a long time coming.  For years the previous administration refused to acknowledge its legal obligation and authority to protect the public from excess carbon emissions.  It took a Supreme Court decision to settle the legal issue, and a new Administration to find the political will to do the right thing.

The Wilderness Society has been fighting for this basic public health for a while.  However, without any Congressional action to adopt a comprehensive climate bill, or any new energy policy to roll back the free dumping of carbon pollution into the air by industry and powerplants, the public has now come to rely on EPA as the public health protector of last resort.

Limiting the amount of carbon in our air is critical to fighting climate disruption.  Rising tides, melting glaciers, and out-of-control beetle infestations will only get worse with a warming world.

One thing that didn’t change on Jan. 2 was how the EPA regulates the emissions from biomass facilities.  Unlike coal-fired power plants, where the fuel is mined from the ground and not replaced, responsible biomass facilities use tree limbs and other timber by-products that can grow back – because they are trees.

This reforestation process could be done in a way that doesn’t add a net amount of carbon pollution to the air over time– since the trees would gradually absorb carbon pollution, they could eventually re-absorb all of the carbon that resulted from burning the previous trees.

Unfortunately, not all biomass operations are created equal – studies have shown that if the sourcing and re-growth of trees and other plant material aren’t done the right way, it can actually be worse for the atmosphere than burning coal.

The EPA gave a 3-year deferral to biomass facilities from the carbon pollution regulations – a delay that could contribute to serious problems for some of  our forests and our climate if emissions are ignored.  Some states are providing strong incentives for new energy development through Renewable Portfolio Standards, and biomass often benefits from a very broad definition “renewable” – in one case allowing trees that are cut down for real estate development to be considered “renewable,” even though in their place will be a housing development, strip mall, or parking lot.  With renewable portfolio requirements ratcheting up over time, the three years of EPA’s “free pass” for biomass could see the construction of dozens of new plants that will continue operating for several decades, despite clear evidence that some of them will harm the climate rather than help.

Despite the biomass decision, the EPA’s New Year’s Resolution to begin protecting the public health from the catastrophe of carbon pollution is a good one.  Whether it can keep its resolution in the face of a looming assault from industry remains to be seen.  The Wilderness Society will be fighting to ensure that its decisions follow science, not politics, in the days ahead.

Photo by Alfred T. Palmer courtesy of the Library of Congress