Some new years seem newer than others, bringing major changes rather than just the turning of a calendar page. 2011 is shaping up that way, with a return to divided government in the US and the beginning of national greenhouse gas regulation by the EPA based on that agency's interpretation of the Clean Air Act, rather than as a result of explicit new Congressional legislation. As the ongoing legal battle over this between the EPA and the state of Texas demonstrates, there's a lot at stake, and the final outcome has not yet been determined.
When the US Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that CO2 and other greenhouse gases constituted pollution that was subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act, it set in motion the process that is now culminating with the EPA's proposed rules for regulating these gases. Initially this will take the form of what the agency calls New Source Performance Standards, applying only to new facilities and modifications within existing facilitates, and only for sources emitting more than 50,000 tons per year of greenhouse gases (GHGs). That exempts residential and most business activities using less than the energy equivalent of about two gasoline tank-trucks per day. The first phase of these regulations is specifically targeted at power plants and oil refineries, and over time it could significantly alter the way that electricity is produced and oil refined in this country.
I've argued for years that this is entirely the wrong way to go about reducing emissions, because greenhouse gases are global, rather than local in effect, and a command and control approach applied to point sources of CO2 and other GHGs will miss many of the least expensive emission reduction opportunities while forcing businesses to focus their efforts on some of the most expensive. Cap and trade or some other means of establishing a price on emissions would have been much more efficient, although the version of cap and trade passed by the House of Representatives in 2009 was a miserable excuse for such a system, distorted as it was by preferential treatment for favored groups and sectors.
But this isn't just a question of economic efficiency; it's also a question of effectiveness. Regulating power plant emissions addresses 34% of total gross US GHG emissions, including roughly 92% of the emissions from the coal value chain, while regulating refineries tackles less than 10% of the emissions from the petroleum value chain--and some of the hardest ones to cut, at that. Refineries are already about 90% efficient. Squeezing even more efficiency from them--which would be the net effect of capping their GHG emissions, since most of those are associated with the combustion of fossil fuels--is likely to cost a lot more than the value of any energy savings such changes would yield. That could have a significant impact on states like Texas, which is home to more than a quarter of the country's refining capacity. The result would also increase national energy costs in either of two ways, with higher operating costs at US refineries being passed on to consumers in the price of fuels, or by reducing US refining throughput and capacity and increasing our reliance on product imports. The latter works directly against the widely-held notion that anything that reduces emissions must automatically be good for our energy security.
None of this is set in stone, although I certainly wouldn't bet against some version of it coming into effect. The incoming Republican chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee has already indicated his determination to restrain the regulation of GHGs by the EPA, and even without a majority in the Senate the House, which controls the government's purse strings, could make it much harder for EPA to pursue this course. At the same time, several previous sponsors of Senate energy and climate legislation have expressed interest in a new, bi-partisan approach to energy, and it's not inconceivable that watering down the proposed EPA regs could become part of a deal to establish a national low-emission energy standard that would include not just renewables, but also nuclear energy and possibly even natural gas. I will be watching these developments with great interest in the weeks and months ahead.