Coal in Your Stockings

An abstract image of coal blended with christmas stockings.

By David J. Hayes
December 5, 2019

The holidays are arriving soon. Look for some proverbial lumps of coal in your stockings from the Trump administration.

First, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) will soon propose a comprehensive overhaul of the regulations that have been successfully guiding implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) since the 1980s.

NEPA has long been on the administration’s hit list. CEQ previously proposed watered-down guidance regarding how NEPA reviews should address potential climate impacts. Now, look for CEQ to constrict the NEPA review process further by narrowing the scoping process; tightening project descriptions and considering fewer alternatives; imposing tight timelines on NEPA reviews; reducing input from cooperating agencies; expanding NEPA exclusions; and pushing page limits on environmental impact statements. This is all about knee-capping NEPA, not about making it work better. There’s very little holiday cheer here.

Second, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will be amending the final rule governing the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for coal- and oil-fired electric power plants. In an odd move for a rule that already has been fully implemented, the EPA will excise consideration of reduced particulate pollution, which has been acknowledged as a major, life-saving co-benefit to mercury removal, from the revised final rule.

The utility industry has acknowledged, and endorsed, the significant benefit of dramatically reducing particulate pollution that is produced through its control of toxic mercury emissions. Yet the administration’s final rule will arbitrarily draw an irrational, ideological line that removes this significant benefit from the rule’s cost-benefit calculus. It is the latest proof, as though any more were needed, that the administration is willing to contort basic cost-benefit principles in order to undermine our environmental laws and justify deregulation.

Finally, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is teed up to provide another holiday buzz-kill. It is expected to finalize a new market rule that will exclude state-supported clean energy sources from the lucrative capacity market in the PJM region — the regional electricity market operator covering 13 mid-Atlantic and Eastern states and the District of Columbia.

Rather than accommodate lawful state clean energy preferences — which try to counter the market’s failure to account for fossil fuels’ climate pollution costs — FERC will be singling out state clean energy support as the “out-of-market” influence it cannot tolerate. The big losers? State clean energy policies, which FERC should be institutionally supporting consistent with good policy and the law. And you. Consumer power costs may spike by an estimated $14 to $24.6 billion in the PJM region over the next 10 years due to FERC’s requirement that utilities purchase unneeded, high-cost resources in the capacity market.

As we anticipate these and likely more “gifts” coming our way, we are doubly grateful that state attorneys general are on the case, ready to challenge these decisions and stand up for the environment, climate and clean energy. Happy holidays!

David J. Hayes is a nationally recognized environmental, energy and natural resources lawyer who leads the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center.