The Year in Preview: The EPA Levels Up

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Protesters ask President Obama to deny granting permission for TransCanada to build the 1,700-mile long pipeline gathered at the White House in August.

Proposals that make it as far in Washington as cap-and-trade did rarely die cleanly; they suffer and bleed and seed the ground with a new generation of mutant offspring. Some of the planted ideas aren’t strong enough to thrive in the harsh conditions of politics; others turn out to be surprising hardy.

Building a campaign around the Keystone XL pipeline was one of the latter type. Born out of cap-and-trade's failures, it thrived, fed by two theories—that you can’t trust D.C. politicos to react responsibly to climate change and that victory in the next legislative bout would require gathering power outside the capital. As as issue, Keystone XL has grown so big that, whatever decision the Obama administration finally makes about it in 2014, it will be brandished as an omen of this country's future (and, because it's connected to climate change, every other country's, too).

Cap-and-trade’s failure also gave life to another idea: the Environmental Protection Agency's work on regulating carbon pollution is one of the few fighting chances for any sort of success at slowing climate change. The EPA limits how much of certain harmful substances polluters can sludge out into the world, and for the past few years, those harmful substances have included greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Where the anti-KXL campaign was a loud and political—with an unpredictable yield—carbon regulation was quieter and policy-focused. But it promises, in the next year, to bear at least some fruit.

2014, in other words, could be the year that America's federal government starts to actually do something about climate change. The goal is to begin limiting the amount of carbon that newly constructed power plants can release and to propose, for the first time, limits on the amount of carbon coming from power plants that are already in operation, which are responsible for one-third of the country's carbon pollution. In the long view of carbon policy, that first item—the regulation of new power plants—counts as a victory. Before 2007 and Massachusetts vs. EPA, in which 12 states sued the EPA to force the agency to regulate greenhouse gases, it wasn't even clear that, legally, the EPA had to count carbon as pollution. But in the years since, this also became an easier victory to grab. The low price of natural gas meant that, in practice, any new plants would be fueled with gas, not coal and that these gas-fired plants could meet the EPA's standards without trying.

Putting restrictions on old power plants, which have been burning coal for 40 or 60 years, will be harder. The Obama administration has delayed its decision on Keystone XL for the same reason it has put off proposing this second set of regulations—it’s politically very, very hard. At first, it wasn’t clear if it would be possible to put forward such regulations without being blocked by any one of the numerous affected parties—the coal industry, the states who'd have to help implement the rules, and the electricity consumers (a.k.a voters) who could be paying notably higher prices for electricity.

Early in 2012, however, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) published a plan that would tailor goals to individual states and provide them more options for meeting carbon-pollution goals. The NRDC report attracted the attention of climate-policy wonks. The plan that EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is talking about now, featuring “new standards that will also provide significant flexibility to the states,” sounds suspiciously close to what NRDC laid out. And now, at the very least, there is a series of target dates for regulating old, coal-fired power plants: June 2014 for proposing the rules, June 2015 for finalizing them.

Although the EPA's work does not require action from the legislative branch, Congress could still check its progress. Republicans (and coal-state Democrats) have talked about doing so: in September, Republicans tried to tack on amendments that would block the EPA standards to bills in both the House and Senate, and in October, West Virginia senator Joe Manchin and Kentucky Representative Ed Whitfield introduced a bill that would short-circuit the EPA's plan. Because of this, the EPA has been lucky that the fight around Keystone XL has taken as much air as it has in debates over climate policy. To carry on a plant-based metaphor of politics, these two ideas have not been competing for sunlight; they occupy different spaces in the ecosystem. The more exposure the anti-KXL campaign receives, the faster it grows; the EPA's carbon regulatory regime has done better with a little bit of shade. If anything, Keystone XL has attracted pests away from the regulatory agenda, by creating an environmental issue for pro-industry, anti-government conservatives to rail against in public.

The climate community has already made so much noise about KXL that what was supposed to be a routine permit process is now one of most recognized environmental issues in the country. Success in regulatory work will be a quieter triumph. But both of these issues are about how the country should build and maintain its energy infrastructure, the pipes that channel oil and the furnaces that burn coal. The campaign against KXL has imagined the future that the energy industry is beginning to build, and decided to try to stop it, now. The EPA has looked at the industry's past, and what it's left us with, and tried to deal with that legacy. Now, we've come to a moment of transition. What neither of these ideas has to offer, though, is a hint at what comes next.

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