Testimony at EPA hearings in Denver

Wyoming's Jim Bridger coal-fired power plant. Photo/Allen Best

Wyoming’s Jim Bridger coal-fired power plant. Photo/Allen Best

Testimony about Clean Power Plan

always earnest and often eloquent

by Allen Best

Old and young, fat and skinny, plus white (mostly), black and brown, the speakers made their way this week to the microphones at the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional headquarters in Denver. For many, the EPA office in LoDo was just down the street, but others came from Nevada to Minnesota, Arizona to Utah.

Most spoke in favor of the EPA’s regulations to cut carbon pollution from power plants 30 percent by 2030, as compared to 2005 levels.

The Clean Power Plan identifies four key building blocks of improving efficiency at existing power plants, shifting production from coal to gas; increasing renewables and, in some states, nuclear; and, finally, reducing demand by increasing energy efficiency.

The EPA had predicted 1,600 speakers at its forums on July 29-30 in four cities, and each speaker was assigned a five-minute slot. I listened to maybe 40 speakers at the Denver sessions. All spoke earnestly, a few of them eloquently.

Most supported the regulations, emphasizing the long-term costs of unrestrained emissions of fossil fuels. Opponents emphasized the short-term costs. The divisions were mostly the same that we’ve heard for the last decade as the United States argues about the transition away from fossil-based fuels, or at least a transition away from unrestrained pollution of the atmosphere.

Supporters tended to describe the new regulations as a good if small step forward. Max Tyler, a Democrat in the Colorado House of Representative and strong supporter of renewable energy, described the regulations as too modest.

“Ultimately the bar is set too low at 30 percent,” he said. “The cost of continuing carbon pollution is appalling, it’s astronomical,” he added.

“The private sector is pretty darned creative. They can pull it off,” Tyler concluded. He himself had founded several small tech-oriented businesses before becoming a legislator in 2009.

Alex Blackmer, from the Colorado Renewable Energy Society, described it as a “very modest proposal” and downplayed the cost. The average age of existing coal-fired power plants is 42 years old, toward the end of their useful lives, he noted.

Catherine A. Carruthers of a group called Environmental Tax Reform was among those advocating a more sweeping approach to carbon regulation, adoption of a carbon tax or fee.

Lili Francklyn, who identified herself as a former science reporter for National Public Radio, remembered covering a meeting in 1982 at which the climate scientist James Hansen warned of the effects of increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

“Almost all of the climate change predictions issued that day have come true,” she said. “I am sick of hearing, after 30 years, that coal is cheap,” she said. She called for regulations that “reflect the true cost of coal.”

A coal train near  Gillette, Wyoming. Photo/Allen Best

A coal train near Gillette, Wyoming. Photo/Allen Best

But some weren’t willing to let natural gas stand in for coal. Rick Blotter, a retired teacher and coach, said 40 percent reduction should be the goal and “natural gas is not the solution to our climate problem.”

Patrick Demmer of the Denver Ministerial Alliance said he grew up north of downtown Denver, near the Asarco smelting site and near the Cherokee coal-fired power plant. He reported that his breathing problems are most likely explained by the pollution. “We have only one world. We may have people in outer space, but we have just one Earth.”

Mixing science and religion was James W.C. White, a climate scientist at the University of Colorado-Boulder and a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. “Climate change is at its core a moral issue,” he said.

He cited intergenerational inequity. “We all say we love our kids, but how do we show it?” he asked. He also pointed to the disproportionate impacts of carbon pollution as opposed to those who benefit from burning it. And he also spoke to the immortality of species extinction from human activities. “We must be held accountable for any species we lose,” he said.

Hal Bidlack has among the most unusual of resumes. He is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, and taught political science for 15 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy. In the Clinton Administration, he served as director of global environmental affairs for the National Security Council. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Colorado Springs in 2008 and now works for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.

He noted that in 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney articulated a 1 percent rule: if there was a 1 percent chance of terrorists getting a weapon of mass destruction, the United States must act as if it were a certainty.

Bidlack countered that 95 percent of climate scientists concur about the role of greenhouse gas emissions in destabilizing the climate, and he further emphasized the threat of changing climate to U.S. security.

Addressing climate change is nothing more than ‘basic risk management,” he said.

Stacy Tellinghuisen, of Western Resource Advocates, emphasized that Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada will be able to hit the 2030 targets with relative ease given plans of utilities already adopted.

The Aspen Skiing Co. stressed that carbon-reduction goals can be achieved without economic distress. Matt Hamilton said the company has reduced its carbon footprint 3.5 percent while adding a hotel, lifts and restaurants. See statement.

But cleaning up the electrical supply is crucial to achieving company carbon-reduction goals, he added. The company gets its electricity primarily from Holy Cross Energy, an electrical cooperative that is poised to soon achieve its goal of a 20 percent carbon-free portfolio.

Chris Menges, project planner for the City of Aspen’s Canary Initiative, similarly made the case that carbon-free electricity need not produce high prices. The city’s electrical portfolio is now more than 80 percent carbon free and customers still enjoy among the lowest electrical rates among municipalities in Colorado. See statement.

He noted the EPA estimate that the energy shift will yield electricity that is 8 percent lower by 2030 while generating enormous savings in health-care costs, with $7 in benefits for every $1 invested.

Those testifying against the EPA regulations emphasized immediate costs. Carl Smith, representing 4,000 railroad workers, pointed to the profits of hauling coal, 28 percent of all railroad revenues, and the middle-class incomes of brakemen and conductors such as himself.

Don't put too much weight on the shoulders of farmers and ranchers, one speaker testified in Denver.

Don’t put too much weight on the shoulders of farmers and ranchers, one speaker testified in Denver.

Bill Midcap, president of the Colorado Rural Electric Association, described the proposed regulations as “just not economically sound.” Make sure these don’t overburden America’s most important sector, and that is agriculture,” he said.

The most interesting testimony came from the utilities. Of all those I heard testify, they had most clearly read the fine print of these new regulations (as I have not).  Speakers from Colorado, Montana, South Dakota and elsewhere expressed a variety of concerns:

•  The new regulations do not give credit for hydroelectric power. Tri-State Generation and Transmission, for example, was formed as a way to provide distribution of hydropower of the new dams to the electrical cooperatives in Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska. It provides 20 percent of power for coops.

High-voltage transmission lines tower into the sky near Kemmerer, Wyo. Photo/Allen Best

High-voltage transmission lines tower into the sky near Kemmerer, Wyo. Photo/Allen Best

• This is too ambitious of a proposal. To achieve dramatic carbon reduction will require extensive transmission, and getting high-voltage, long-distance transmission built is difficult and takes many years.

• Credit for non-carbon power generation should be given to the states where it is produced, not to the states where it is consumed, in effect favoring the more rural states of the Great Plains and West.

• Because the United States only produces a portion of the world carbon dioxide emissions, this is such a small gain that it will accomplish almost nothing.

• These EPA regulations put the onus on states to figure out how to comply, but state governments do not have the staff expertise to respond effectively. See additional perspectives in CREA blog.

Elsewhere in Denver, there were demonstrations and rallies, most of it pure theater designed for the TV cameras. My take is that these regulations will go forward, but the real interesting story will emerge as the co-ops, utilities and other power producers submit their written comments during the next several months.

 

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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