The first day of hearings in Pittsburgh on proposed federal carbon controls for coal-burning power plants spawned a march by thousands of coal miners and a rally by hundreds of environmentalists and succeeded in demonstrating that a major change in the nation’s energy policy will not be easy.
More than 135 individuals spoke at Thursday’s hearing with a like number scheduled to speak today. The lists of speakers at the hearings include 22 members of the United Mine Workers of America, 15 Sierra Club leaders or members, eight International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers members, three members of Mom’s Clean Air Force, two coal companies and former astronaut Jay Apt, now a professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
The testimony offered Thursday was both evenly and widely divided.
Patricia DeMarco, a biologist and senior scholar of Chatham University who holds adjunct faculty appointments at the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University, was first to offer testimony Thursday morning and said the transition from a fossil-fueled energy system to a renewable-energy-powered economy is the best way to abate the impacts of climate-changing gas emissions.
“While the change from an energy system entrenched for 200 years seems daunting,” she said, “the consequences of continuing this pattern of energy use are surely devastating both to the atmosphere and to the fresh water system, for us and especially for our children and their grandchildren.”
But Vincent Brisini, deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s office of waste, air and radiation protection, who testified next, said the touted flexibility of the carbon rule is “illusionary” and questioned its legality and whether the EPA should be making regulatory decisions with such far-reaching social and economic outcomes.
The standards would cut carbon emissions from power plants -- the single largest source of carbon pollution that contributes to climate change -- by 30 percent from 2005 levels but would set individual goals for states and allow them to craft policies to reach their particular reduction goal.
The proposal would require a 32 percent reduction of carbon pollution from Pennsylvania power plants by 2030 from 2012 levels. Pennsylvania power plants put out 48 percent of the state’s carbon pollution, according to the EPA.
Airborne particle emissions would also be reduced by the rule by more than 25 percent, according to the EPA, while providing up to $93 billion in climate and public health benefits. Those health benefits in 2030 would include avoidance of an estimated 6,600 premature deaths, 150,000 childhood asthma attacks, and 490,000 missed days of work or school.
The hearings on what the EPA calls the “Clean Power Plan” began at 9 a.m. and ran until 8 p.m. in the William S. Moorhead Federal Building, 1000 Liberty Ave., Downtown. The EPA said individuals can still register on site to testify. The hearings in Pittsburgh end today but written public comment can be submitted until Oct. 16.
The rules will not be finalized until June 15, 2015, and expected legal challenges from the electric power, coal industry and some states could delay implementation for years.
John Pippy, chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, the industry trade organization, said the proposed rules are “an attempt to transform the American energy supply away from coal.”
Kathy Dahlkemper, Erie County executive, called the rules a “common sense, flexible, achievable plan to reduce carbon emissions” and said they would benefit the 1 in 5 children in the state with asthma.
She also said it’s an opportunity for the nation to display leadership on climate change.
“It’s an important first step,” she said,” that demonstrates the U.S. is resolute in addressing this issue.”
Kevin Stewart, director of environmental health for the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic, urged the EPA to set emissions targets that exclude already announced coal plant retirements and new natural gas-fired power plants, which have lower emissions than a traditional coal plant.
“The bottom line is this: EPA must make certain that its standards do not simply tally reductions that would have already been achieved had the Clean Power Plan not been in place,” Mr. Stewart said. “We are in the midst of a slow-motion crisis of global proportions. The objective here must not be one of doing the minimum necessary to meet some arithmetic goal, but rather one of finding ways to do as much as possible to reduce the severity of the impacts already on their way.”
Deb Nardone, director of the Sierra Club's "beyond natural gas" campaign, spoke in support of the proposal but said it should be improved at the state level so as to better encourage the use of renewable energy, rather than fracking.
"We cannot afford to have baby steps or counterproductive measures," Ms. Nardone said.
But Russ Lorince, vice president of external affairs for Arch Coal, offered harsh criticism of EPA's proposal in testimony late Thursday afternoon, arguing that it would impose "high electricity costs on American households and industry."
Mr. Apt, the astronaut turned professor of technology in CMU’s Department of Engineering and Public Policy and the Tepper School of Business, said the carbon rules should spur innovation and reduce emissions of climate-changing gases.
“I teach in a business school and I believe in American industry’s ability to innovate when there is a reason to do so,” Mr. Apt testified. “We did exactly that in response to the Clean Air Act of 1970. The number of patents filed for sulfur dioxide pollution control technologies increased by a factor of 20 after the regulations. And we profited by selling that technology around the world. EPA’s proposed rule will foster innovation and create jobs.
“This proposed rule provides the proper incentives for low-pollution power and the flexibility for states to reduce pollution in sensible ways.”
So far, the EPA has received about 300,000 comments during the public comment period. The agency categorizes the comments based on themes, according to Reid Harvey, director of the EPA’s Clean Air Market Division.
“We develop responses to the categories of comments. There will be a document in the final rulemaking that will address those. It will be released congruent with the final report.”
The morning’s hearing session ended as protesters gathered outside the federal building on Liberty Avenue. Environmental activists wearing blue T-shirts with the phrase “climate action now” gathered near Liberty and 10th Street.
Meanwhile, another march supporting coal and union workers wound around the federal building. Marchers, many wearing shirts or holding signs with United Mine Workers Association logos, chanted “Hey, hey, EPA. Don’t take our jobs away.” Environmental supporters shouted back “No planet, no jobs.”
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the EPA held hearings in Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Denver, on the carbon pollution standards proposed by the agency in June.
Additional information on the EPA Clean Power Plan can be found at www2.epa.gov/carbon-pollution-standards.
Don Hopey: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1983. Stephanie Ritenbaugh: email@example.com or 412-263-4910. Madeline R. Conway: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1714 or on Twitter @MadelineRConway. First Published July 31, 2014 12:00 AM