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US 'can and must' cut carbon, McCarthy and Moniz tell House lawmakers

From the September 20, 2013 issue of Public Power Daily

Originally published September 20, 2013

By Jeannine Anderson

Saying she believes climate change "is the most significant public health threat of our time," Gina McCarthy, the new leader of the Environmental Protection Agency, said the United States "can and must embrace cutting carbon." The power industry will be an important part of that effort, she said: the EPA is expected to announce today a rule setting carbon standards for new power plants, and the agency will issue carbon limits for existing plants next June.

"Based on the evidence, more than 97 percent of climate scientists are convinced that human-caused climate change is occurring," McCarthy said. "If our changing climate continues unchecked, it will have devastating impacts on the United States and the planet." Reducing carbon can be accomplished without hurting the economy, she said.

McCarthy spoke at a Sept. 18 hearing held by the House Energy and Power Subcommittee to examine the Climate Action Plan that was announced by President Obama earlier this year.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz agreed with McCarthy about the need for the United States — and the rest of the world — to reduce global emissions of carbon dioxide.

"The evidence is overwhelming, the science is clear, and the threat from climate change is real and urgent," said the former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor. "The basic science behind climate change is simple," Moniz said. "Greenhouse gases make the Earth warmer, and we are emitting more and more of them into the atmosphere."

"Rising sea levels and increasingly severe droughts, heat waves, wildfires, and major storms are already costing our economy billions of dollars a year and these impacts are only going to grow more severe," he said. "Common sense demands that we take action."

During the hearing, which lasted more than three hours, Republicans and Democrats sparred with each other over the nation's policy on climate change. Republicans generally questioned the need for President Obama's Climate Action Plan — and voiced worry over how it might affect the economy — while Democrats generally defended the plan.

Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., called for the Sept. 18 hearing to examine federal agencies’ current and planned climate change activities. He opened the session by noting that the panel had invited witnesses from 13 federal agencies — with six weeks notice — but that only the EPA and Department of Energy sent witnesses.

Chairman 'extremely disappointed' at lack of response from other agencies
"I am extremely disappointed" that there were no witnesses from the other agencies that were invited to testify, Whitfield said, adding that he would continue to ask the other 11 agencies to meet with the subcommittee.

Whitfield noted that President Obama, in a June speech announcing the Climate Action Plan, "said he was tired of excuses for inaction" on climate change.

"I take exception to that," because in his plan the president included many elements of the cap-and-trade bill that passed the House but failed in the Senate, Whitfield said. "Congress made a decision, and that was that it did not want to adopt that legislation."

In Europe, and in other countries that have adopted carbon-reduction goals, energy prices have skyrocketed because of policies requiring greater use of expensive renewable sources of energy, the chairman said. The new government in Australia plans to roll back its carbon regulations, he said.

"We want to know more about the [president's] plan," Whitfield said. "Will it contribute to higher energy costs? Will it contribute to unemployment?"

Moniz said the president's plan has three parts: "to cut carbon pollution domestically; to prepare for the worsening impacts of climate change; and to lead international efforts to combat climate change and prepare for its impacts."

He noted that the costs of renewable resources such as solar and wind energy, are coming down. "Trillion-dollar markets are developing now for clean energy and air pollution technology," he added.

Carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas that contributes to a warming effect, Moniz told the lawmakers. But carbon is especially important because it is long-lived, persisting in the atmosphere for up to hundreds of years, and is produced in large quantities by the burning of fossil fuels, he said.

"Right now, globally, we are putting around 35 billion metric tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each year from fossil fuel combustion and land use change, with the majority coming from fossil fuels," he said. The atmosphere retains about half those emissions, with the rest absorbed by the oceans, forests and vegetation, although those natural carbon sinks may become less efficient as carbon concentrations rise, Moniz said.

"The arithmetic is that, without prudent action in the near term, we will approach a doubling of pre-industrial carbon dioxide concentrations sometime around mid-century, a level that has been recognized by the scientific community as having major consequences. This means that if we don't start reducing emissions now, there is a very high likelihood that our children and grandchildren will face major climate disruptions."

"We have an increasingly clear idea of what the consequences of such disruptions will look like," the secretary said. "In the short term, while we cannot attribute any particular storm to climate change, we have all seen and experienced the devastation due to recent extreme weather," such as Hurricane Sandy, which caused $65 billion in economic damage, he said.

"Climate change is already costing tens of billions of dollars in disaster assistance," said Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif.

Moniz said DOE is undertaking a variety of efforts to reduce U.S. domestic carbon dioxide emissions, including using energy more intelligently. He noted that the United States "wastes an enormous amount of energy" and said he wants to use energy efficiency "as a means to not only achieve near-term reductions in carbon emissions, but also to significantly reduce energy bills for American families and businesses."  The Energy Department is working on several energy efficiency rulemakings, including rules for commercial freezers and refrigerators, Moniz said.

"Climate change is the biggest energy challenge we face, and a clear and present danger" to the United States and the rest of the world, said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the ranking minority member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. He said President Obama's Climate Action Plan is a reasonable approach "that will make our country the leader" in the world on this issue, and said those who dislike the president's plan ought to come up with a plan of their own to address the problem.

Lawmakers question readiness of CCS technology
During the hearing's question-and-answer session, McCarthy would not provide details about the EPA's New Source Performance Standards for new power plants, which are due out today (Friday). However, she did not dispute Republican assertions that the proposal will require the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology by new coal-fired power plants.

Several Republicans on the subcommittee, including Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois, asked how the EPA could require the use of CCS technology when it has not been demonstrated commercially.  McCarthy responded that  the issue was "heavily discussed" and said there will be "a full debate about this when the rule goes out."  Based on the information EPA has, "CCS technology is feasible," she said.

"The components [for CCS] are all there," Moniz said. Carbon emissions have been successfully captured, and carbon dioxide also has been stored underground successfully, he said.

"Does EPA or DOE see the future for coal as a viable energy source, in light of the impending greenhouses gas regulations?" asked Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.

Moniz and McCarthy both answered, "Yes."

In response to another question from Dingell, McCarthy said the EPA is considering a unit-by-unit approach to carbon limits for existing power plants.

Noting that Nebraska is an all-public power state and that it is close to coal from the Powder River Basin, Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb, asked McCarthy whether utilities in his state would be able to build coal-fired power plants, once the EPA releases its New Source Performance Standards.

"I would ask that we have this conversation regarding New Source Performance Standards once the rule comes out," McCarthy replied.

"Is there still room for coal generation?" asked Terry.

"The rule will provide certainty for new coal plants, and existing plants will be part of the country's energy future for decades," McCarthy said.

Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., challenged the idea that the planet is warming, saying that ice at the poles has recently expanded. And he said that even draconian measures to cut emissions would do little in terms of global emissions and would hurt the U.S. economy.

"We hear that all climate change is man-made," McKinley said. "Let's assume all coal-fired generation in the United States were curtailed. This would reduce C02 levels in the world by only 0.2 percent," he said. "Crushing America's economy to reduce emission by 0.2 percent is abuse of presidential authority."

"I don't think anyone has said that all climate change is man-made," replied Moniz. There has been a recent hiatus in the rate of increase in worldwide temperatures, but "this is only a hiatus," he said. Such changes in the rate of increase "are fully expected," due to phenomena such as changes in the ocean current known as El Nino and La Nina, he noted.

"This decade is the warmest in recorded history," he reminded McKinley.

"We are at a critical crossroads," said Waxman. "If we do nothing, it will lead to more multi-billion dollar disasters, and history will not treat us kindly."

More information about the hearing, including the witnesses' statements, is posted on the House Energy and Commerce Committee's website.


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