Carbon Emissions “Not a Factor” When Approving Coal Plants, EPA Administrator Says

coal_fired_plant.jpgEnvironmental Protection Agency administrator Stephen Johnson released a 19-page memo last Thursday claiming that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant subject to regulation when permitting coal-fired power plants.

Johnson’s reasoning goes against a ruling made by his own agency, when the EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board rejected a permit from a regional EPA office in Denver for a 110 megawatt plant on the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation in Utah. The three-judge panel denied the permit saying that the regional office failed to support its decision to approve the plant without requiring it to have the best CO2 controls available, further directing the office to think again about its determination that the controls not be put in place.

Johnson’s memorandum of last Thursday uses the very same logic that EPA Appeals Board rejected from the Denver office last November.

The board’s decision is also in accordance with the 2007 Supreme Court Ruling directing the EPA to regulate CO2 as a pollutant.

None of this stopped Administrator Johnson from his “…11th hour …transparently cynical attempt to tie the hands of the incoming administration and prevent Clean Air Act regulation of global warming pollution”, said John Walke, director of Natural Resources Defense Council’s Clean Air Program.

It’s a marvel to behold an EPA action that so utterly disdains global warming responsibility and disdains the law at the same time,” said Walke. “EPA’s administrator is defying the agency’s own judges, the Clean Air Act, and the course of history that recognizes the urgency in tackling global warming.”

Johnson issued his memo just one day after scientists at the annual conference of the American Geophysical Union warned that the degree humanity effectively deals with climate change is the degree to which we deal with coal. A major concern is that as oil and gas reserves decline, instead of naturally limiting greenhouse gas emissions as some have thought, it will lead to development of coal-to-liquid technologies and and unconventional fossil fuels such as methane hydrates, tar sands, oil shale. Coal and unconventional fuels are by far the dirtiest in terms of emissions per unit of energy output.

Limiting coal burning and avoiding the use of liquified coal use, while developing as rapidly as possible renewable energy sources, is essential to avoid possible catastrophic consequences of global warming.


Addressing the climate problem means addressing the coal problem,” said Ken Caldeira, a scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. “Whether there’s a little more oil or a little less oil will change the details, but if we want to change the overall shape of the warming curve, it matters what we do with coal.”


It apparently doesn’t matter to outgoing EPA administrator Stephen Johnson. “Outgoing” is the bright spot in this story. I’ve made it no secret what I (and many, many others) think of Stephen Johnson’s tenure at the EPA.

NRDC’s John Walke sums it up:

The ultimate consolation, however, is that today’s EPA offense is so ham-handed, so divorced from the law, that it can and should be reversed by the Obama administration with the stroke of a pen.”

I’m not sure who I’ll miss more. George Bush or Stephen Johnson.

Listen to NASA scientist Dr. Pushker Kharecha discuss various carbon futures

Stephen Johnson’s full memorandum

Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schueneman
Tom is the founder and managing editor of and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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  1. EPA has yet to make an endangerment finding on CO2. The period for comments on it’s Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) ended November 28. A decision (yes or no on endangerment) won’t be made until next year. EPA doesn’t regulate substances for which an endangerment finding has not been made. This is long-standing and sound EPA policy. Without such a policy EPA would regulate everything. The EPA Appeals Board panel decision last month violated this sound policy, hence Johnson’s memo. If you disagree with this EPA policy then you are saying EPA should regulate something before it finds it to be dangerous. Not only does that not make sense but EPA doesn’t have the power to do that.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I appreciate the input. I’m not saying I disagree with EPA policy as you frame it. But hasn’t the EPA been under a mandate to make this determination for well over a year now? Almost one year ago EPA staff has been reported as concluding that CO2 emissions pose a threat.

    Stephen Johnson, in my mind, has not been a good steward of the EPA.

    Please feel free to continue this discussion.

  3. Bureaucracies are slow, always have been. They must by law take public comment before taking action, which is a good thing. But here the issue is much larger. If it is necessary to limit CO2 emissions (a proposition I don’t subscribe to), then should a bureaucracy make the rules or should the people, through their elected representatives in Washington, make them via a cap-and-trade or carbon tax scheme. The public policy question is enormous. I think Congress should remove EPA’s jurisdiction over greenhouse gasses and let the congressional debate begin. That is the way a democracy should handle this enormously important issue.

  4. Well, we’ll just disagree about the process the EPA has taken under the leadership of Johnson. It is an enormously important issue, on that we do agree.

    And yes, the nature of a bureaucracy is to move slowly and methodically. I am reminded of the recent case of the Dept. of Interior pushing through an important and substantive change in the Endangered Species Act – and example of a bureaucracy that didn’t move so slowly or methodically…

    Even after taking away my obvious bias against the Bush administration, this is not the way the Department of Interior should have handled this. My dad worked in Interior for most of his career – including under Reagan/Watt – and never so anything like this. So I guess bureaucracies don’t always act as methodically as they should, or in the best interest of their mandate. Anyway, thanks for the comments on this.


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