EPA’s McCarthy says U.S. at pivotal moment in fighting climate change

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, Oct. 27, 2014 - Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy says the U.S. has arrived at a pivotal moment in its pursuit of clean energy, a time on par with the very creation of the EPA almost 44 years ago.

Speaking last week at a conference hosted by Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy, McCarthy compared the potential of the Obama administration's initiative to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants to that of the EPA's attack on automobile emissions in the 1970s.

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“This, folks, is our new catalytic-converter-moment,” McCarthy said referring to the emissions control device that debuted on 1975 model year vehicles to comply with EPA emissions regulations. “As we work to build a cleaner, low-carbon energy future, let's remind ourselves just how good we are at this and how much our capabilities will build over time.”

McCarthy said the announced actions on power plants are simply are taking the same logical path that EPA has been following. First, she said, the agency worked on reducing emissions on light duty vehicles, then on heavier duty cars and truck, and now it's making the jump towards power plants. She said this is a move supported by the American people who “overwhelmingly consider climate change a problem,” and one that can be dealt with without stifling the economy in pursuit of a better environment.

“We see overwhelming support, specifically for EPA action to curb carbon pollution from power plants,” McCarthy said, noting that the observed level of support “is music to my ears.”

Representatives of the power industry disagree. On Oct. 16, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) officially submitted comments on the proposed rule, saying the organization believes EPA lacks regulatory authority under the Clean Air Act “to rewrite national energy policy.”

“This proposal regulating CO2 emissions from modified or reconstructed power plants represents a grand and sweeping regulatory overreach,” NRECA CEO Jo Ann Emerson said in a statement. “In particular, the EPA lacks any evidence to support its assumption regarding achievable efficiency improvements at power plants.”

An NRECA spokeswoman said the group is asking EPA to withdraw the proposed rule because it undermines the goals of electric cooperatives in their ability to “provide our members and our communities with safe, reliable and affordable power.”

McCarthy said the utility industry is usually quick to adapt to changing rules and expects this proposed rule to be no different.

“They've already figured out ‘I can make money on this even though I'm complaining,'” McCarthy said during a question-and-answer session after her remarks. “They always go further, they always do better, and I think we are at a time when the energy world is transforming; I think they know that.”

McCarthy said the plan has the potential to cut carbon pollution from the power sector by 30 percent by 2030 and could cut energy bills by 8 percent. She also said that for every dollar invested in the Clean Power Plan, the country could reap $7 in health benefits.  With renewable energy prices continuing to decrease - McCarthy mentioned solar energy as an example - she said coal might be on the way out with or without the proposed rule.

“Coal as a fuel source for power plants is really not competitive in most of the United States,” McCarthy said in response to a question. “It's not going to get easier for those states that are heavily reliant on the coal industry . . . I think we all recognize that.”

McCarthy briefly mentioned renewable energy options in her remarks, but never mentioned biofuels such as ethanol or biodiesel. She did say that the proposed rule would allow for each state to have a renewable energy portfolio of their own, which could open the door for the inclusion of biofuels in states where the product and infrastructure are both readily available.

“We must embrace the challenge of climate the way we have embraced our challenges before. It is not just a responsibility that we have to accept as regulators, it's a moral responsibility we must all embrace for the sake of our kids,” McCarthy said. “Let's remember that this isn't a challenge, it's as much an opportunity as it is a challenge. This is an opportunity for us to seize the day. It's an opportunity for us to retool and resurge with new technologies, new industries, and new jobs.”

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