Massachusetts redux: best available control technology

As readers of the Beacon will likely know, yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court ruled mostly in favor of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, deciding a case challenging EPA authority to regulate “greenhouse gas” emissions. [Utility Air Regulatory Group v. Environmental Protection Agency, No. 12-1146, June 23, 2014]

The decision was an outcome of a pathbreaking lawsuit brought about a decade ago by Massachusetts, leading several other states in opposing the Walker Bush administration’s refusal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. [Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, No. 05–1120, 549 U.S. 497, April 2, 2007] In the earlier case, the court wrote, “EPA has offered no reasoned explanation…Its action was therefore ‘arbitrary, capricious…’…The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.”

In its Utility Air decision, the court found EPA exceeded statutory authority by proposing to regulate U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from all stationary sources that exceed as little as 50,000 tons per year in carbon-dioxide equivalents. However, the weird decision allows such regulation if some other air pollutant is also being regulated. The latter circumstances are estimated by EPA to account for more than 80 percent of current U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources.

Consequences for Brookline and for other large communities in Massachusetts are substantial. With 14 major structures and many smaller ones, the town might have become subject to carbon dioxide emission regulations. Although Brookline’s buildings use natural gas as the main or only heating fuel, if regulated as a single facility they might reach a threshold of 50,000 tons per year. Brookline’s cost of compliance could easily top $10 million a year.

The current revision of the Clean Air Act requires facilities subject to emission controls to implement so-called “best available control technology” (BACT) when making a major change. If Brookline were regulated, that might include upgrading or replacing an elementary school. A problem which would bedevil a regulated facility is that currently there is only one main choice for BACT: carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Today, CCS is theoretical. There is no proven, industrial-scale example anywhere. It is not yet known whether it will work reliably or what it might really cost. Twice over the past fifteen years, the U.S. government began and then stopped an industrial-scale test project. In 2009, the Energy Department approved five test projects, but all were far too small to provide a reliable base of reference.

The only large-scale CCS project underway is the Kemper plant near Mobile, AL, from Southern Company and industrial partners. Plans are to extract about two-thirds of the carbon dioxide from coal-fired flue gases at the 580 MW power-plant and send that through a special-purpose pipeline to east Texas, to be injected into wells for tertiary oil recovery.

Often regarded as voodoo when begun in the mid-1950s, today carbon-dioxide injection has become standard practice with some types of oil formations. However, the Kemper project is wildly out-of-control, recently projected to cost twice as much as initial estimates. Potentials to use large amounts of carbon dioxide in that way are geographically limited–found mostly in the Southwest and parts of the Mountain West.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, June 24, 2014

Peter Folger, Carbon capture and sequestration, Congressional Research Service, February 10, 2014

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