A Critical Moment At A Critical Agency as the Baton Goes from Wellinghoff to Ron Binz (Hopefully)

Aug 28, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

There are few more important, and more obscure, agencies in Washington D.C. than the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission the regulator of the wholesale electricity transmission systems and “bulk” (imagine big quantities, like giant tubs from Costco) U.S. electricity markets.

FERC oversees an incredibly complex electricity system.  Our grid meshes together rural systems, where power lines stretch hundreds of miles without interruption, with dense and sophisticated urban networks where millions of people are packed together and drawing power to charge cell phones, watch television, use computers, and make  hospitals, factories, homes and offices all hum.

The age of the elements of these incredibly diverse systems range from “physically touched by Thomas Edison” to “installed hours ago” with all that suggests in terms of technological sophistication.

On top of that physical complexity from a legal and regulatory perspective the American system is a bewildering mix of business and regulatory models with some places served by utilities that own generators and others, like nearly all of New England, served by utilities who are actually generally forbidden from owning power plants. And in contrast to many other parts of the world we mix together privately and publicly owned electricity systems, with many customers served by private “Investor Owned Utilities” but many others served by public entities like “municipal light companies” – and just to make life even more complicated our large generation is mostly owned by private companies with some giant exceptions in the form of hydroelectric dams and other generators owned by States like New York or Federal entities like the Tennessee Valley Authority.

This last bit of complexity is rooted deep in history, notably the declaration by Franklin Roosevelt, when running for President, that he generally favored private ownership of electricity generation and systems but “that where a community — a city or county or a district is not satisfied with the service rendered or the rates charged by the private utility, it has the undeniable basic right, as one of its functions of Government, one of its functions of home rule, to set up, after a fair referendum to its voters has been had, its own governmentally owned and operated service.”  This idea played out in his long run as President when the cornerstones were laid for both gigantic federally owned systems and for the FERC model of regulated private systems.

It is no wonder, given this complex mix of elements that some think the American electricity system is ungovernable.  But a few leaders have succeeded in using the tools available to them to reshape this unwieldy system and steer it in a good direction.  One of those leaders is the current, and soon to be former, FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff.

During Chairman Wellinghoff’s tenure FERC has instituted important reforms – pushing time and again for changes that remove the barriers to the new clean resources, like energy efficiency and renewable energy (like wind and solar) that are the rising stars of our energy system.   Under his leadership FERC has pushed aggressively against entrenched policies that gave a leg up to existing generators and utilities simply because they were already in place.  The idea of “pay for performance” that meant that new technologies could earn revenue from providing services to the electricity might sound simple and obvious but FERC has had to fight to make that idea a central tenet in its decision making, beginning with the critical idea (incubated in New England) that efforts to reduce electricity demand should be compensated in markets just like resources that generate power.  Application of the pay-for-performance principle has meant that new technologies that flourished in a small pilot market here in New England can spread across the nation – opening doors for electricity storage systems that will revolutionize the way we generate and use energy.

The biggest single effort that FERC has undertaken during the Wellinghoff era is almost certainly the Order 1000 initiative. Order 1000 mandated thoughtful regional planning of the electricity system across the nation and consideration of public policies, like state renewable energy standards and greenhouse gas reduction mandates, in electricity system planning and infrastructure decisions, among other systemic reforms.  This mammoth effort to reshape the current national electricity system is still in progress but should pave the way for significant progress in managing the energy system transformation and transition beginning to unfold around us.

The departure of Jon Wellinghoff from FERC does not have to mean the end of progress on all of these fronts.  FERC has maintained a collegial and effective decision making process that cuts across party lines (which is a pretty stunning thing to say in 2013 about any institution with a mix of Commissioners from the two main political parties).  Very often its decisions are unanimous or feature a very focused and specific dissent from one or two Commissioners disagreeing with some specific aspect of the decision but accepting much of what the majority are doing and saying.

This uniquely effective institution will maintain its balance and continue to make progress if Ron Binz, the nominee proposed by President Obama to take over as Commissioner and Chairman of FERC, is confirmed by the Senate.  Mr. Binz is accustomed to working across party lines as he comes from the quintessentially “purple” state of Colorado where he had a solid record as a consumer advocate, chair of the state utility commission and energy expert and innovator.

We are in a time of change and challenge: coal plants are retiring and the United States shows signs of finally getting serious about using energy efficiently while reaping the power of the wind and the sun.  Such times call for steady leadership at the essential Federal energy regulatory body.  That is what Jon Wellinghoff has shown – and it is what Ron Binz can provide going forward.

VT Gas Expansion Thwarts Climate Needs

Aug 26, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

gas-expansion

photo courtesy of lydia_shiningbrightly@flickr.com

If your doctor puts you on a diet to prevent major health problems, it is a bad idea to fill your pantry with potato chips. Simply hoping you don’t eat the chips staring you in the face is a bad way to try losing weight.

Likewise, if you want to reduce fossil fuels and combat climate change, it is a bad idea to blindly expand pipelines that deliver these fuels to your doorstep and beyond. These are pipes that will be in place for the next 50 to 100 years. In that timeframe we need to move away from dirty fossil fuels, including fracked gas.

In Vermont, the proponents of a proposed gas pipeline expansion are sadly ignoring the long term impacts.

Instead of proposing a project that actually meets our climate change diet needs, the proposed gas expansion in Vermont is doing the equivalent of filling our energy pantry with potato chips. Chips that we will stare at every day and try not to eat in order to stay on our diet.

This is a bad idea.

The gas cheerleaders, including the Shumlin Administration, are hoping folks will only eat the chips as a small snack. But sadly they are not proposing any limits on the use of the gas, or sizing the project to meet our very limited dietary needs. They are not even considering the use of the full pipeline capacity in their analysis.

Testimony from Conservation Law Foundation provided by Dr. Elizabeth Stanton, explains the considerable uncertainty underlying the claims of Vermont Gas and states:

“As long as there is significant uncertainty in the emissions from natural gas, Vermont risks adopting long-lived natural gas infrastructure that is not compatible with meeting Vermont’s 2050 greenhouse gas reduction goals. Approving Vermont Gas’ request represents a gamble, on the part of the PSB, that Vermont’s current and future sources of gas will be at the low end of the current range of possible emission rates in the literature and not at the higher end, and that the uses of the gas will only replace oil or propane. Both assumptions are unlikely and as a result the project proposed will most likely increase greenhouse gas emissions over the life of the project.” (Stanton Testimony at 9-10).

The testimony from the Public Service Department, which is responsible for the State’s energy plan, and helping us meet our climate goals, provides various manipulations of others’ testimony but still simply assumes all the gas in the pipeline will replace oil use. (Poor testimony at pg 8). That is an analysis that is far too limited.

The testimony from the Agency of Natural Resources recognizes that if any gas supply sources have emissions as high as some of those documented, then the claimed emissions benefits of the project “could be reduced or even result in a scenario of increased GHG emissions relative to oil.” (Merrell Testimony at pg. 3). Instead of recommending ways to reduce that impact, however, the Agency calls for annual reporting. While more information is always good, the Agency’s suggestion will be about as effective as closing the stable door after the horse has already run away.

It is past time for Vermont to begin taking its climate change goals seriously. Expanding our addiction to fossil fuels by expanding gas pipelines in Vermont is irresponsible.

Good News from Washington DC – Really, Not Kidding, Good News from Washington DC!

Aug 23, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

gina-mccarthy

President Obama nominated Gina McCarthy to head the EPA, which was confirmed by the Senate.

Good policy and good action by government is dependent on having good people in charge.

Down in Washington we now have proof that even in the age of grid-lock and partisan warfare a competent, professional and effective leader can rise to a critical position in our government to lead and manage the crucial energy and climate transition underway.

That proof came last month when Massachusetts native (and resident) Gina McCarthy was sworn in as Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after a record-setting delay.

Many members of the CLF staff have years of experience working with Gina during her long career in Massachusetts state government and then her successful run as Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.

There are a few hallmarks of Gina’s work and method of operation that are particularly notable and important.

First, she brings a deep respect and appreciation for the importance of public participation. Many of us at CLF have seen the “McCarthy Principle” that “In general, the more people who are involved in making a decision and the more information the decision-makers have the better the decision will be” in action.

Second, she is totally (and sometimes brutally) honest.  I can remember Gina cutting to the end of a negotiation by bluntly reviewing a list of items under discussion: “you will get 1, 3, 5 and 9 but I can’t deliver on 2 and 8, although I wish I could, and 4 and 6 are a bad idea.”  Her legendary charm and sense of humor are essential to making this style work.

Third, Gina is not afraid of complicated subject matter.  Her engagement of climate policy, transportation and the electricity systems display a willingness to delve into the details, trust experts and tackle tough and thorny issues.

Gina, in her time in state government in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and during her time in Washington, has not gotten everything right. I can tick off almost as many examples of CLF squaring off in agency proceedings or in court to oppose efforts she has championed as I can list examples when we stood with her and her agency.  But it has always been clear that she has been listening, thinking and doing all she could to move her agency in the right direction to protect the public health, the environment and to build thriving communities and she has done it as honestly and as openly as she could.  And isn’t that what matters?

Vermont Gas Expansion Increases Greenhouse Gases

Jun 14, 2013 by  | Bio |  5 Comment »

photo courtesy of kara newhouse@flickr.com

photo courtesy of kara newhouse@flickr.com

Expanding natural gas in Vermont moves us in the wrong direction to address climate change. The expansion increases greenhouse gas emissions, compounding Vermont’s contribution to climate change.

In detailed testimony filed with the Vermont Public Service Board, Conservation Law Foundation explained that the simplistic evaluation by Vermont Gas that the expansion will reduce emissions is simply wrong. Testimony from Dr. Elizabeth Stanton shows on pages 18-19 that expanding natural gas increases emissions more than three million tons over 100 years and brings environmental costs of an additional $76,000,000.

This project is not a good deal for Vermont.

Dr. Elizabeth Stanton shows that the emissions from the full life-cycle of the project result in significant increases in global warming pollution. This project will be around for a long time as will its greenhouse gases. Dr. Stanton explains on pg 9:

“The natural gas life cycle is the set of all processes related to the use of natural gas from its extraction, processing, and distribution, to its end-use combustion. Life-cycle analyses are studies that determine the upstream and downstream consequences of a particular product or service used by consumers.”

Its overall emissions include leaks of methane, a gas 25 to 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to climate change.

Testimony by Dr. Jon Erickson, Dean of the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont shows that expanding gas results in locking us in to fossil fuels at a time our climate and energy goals require moving the opposite direction. He states at pg 6:

“Any expansion of the delivery of natural gas to customers in Vermont has the potential to substitute for other nonrenewable, carbon-based fuels (such as fuel oil), but also has the potential to displace current and future uses of renewable energy (such as wood-based home heating or district heating).”

His testimony goes on to state at pg 8:

“Beyond GHG-related risk, the extraction of natural gas supplies is using increasingly environmentally damaging procedures such as hydro-fracking, a practice that Vermont has temporarily banned within State borders. Environmental regulation in other States and Canadian Provinces poses a risk to the long-term stability of natural gas supplies.”

Let’s be honest. Increasing our reliance on fossil fuels, including natural gas, is a bad move.

 

 

 

“No supportable basis for optimism” and “ever higher costs”: PUC Staff calls out PSNH’s failed business model

Jun 10, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

This past Friday, staff from the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission and The Liberty Consulting Group issued the results of their investigation (PDF) into the impacts of PSNH’s failing business model and “ever higher costs” to consumers. The Union Leader and NHPR were quick to quote the report’s damning conclusion:

In summary, the situation looks to worsen, as continuing migration from PSNH’s default service by customers causes an upward rate trend. We find no supportable basis for optimism that future market conditions will reverse this unsustainable trend, especially in the near term. To the contrary, the PSNH fossil units face uncertainties that combine to create a risk of further, potentially substantial increases in costs.

This underlines the benefits of abandoning PSNH’s residential energy service, noting that “PSNH’s default service rate has exceeded [competitive supplier] rates since mid-2009.” As PSNH itself stated in a filing before the NH Supreme Court in May, PSNH energy service ratepayers “have the legal right and ability to avoid payment of PSNH’s default energy service rate entirely by buying their electricity from a competitive electric power supplier.” The PUC staff’s report serves as a call to action for New Hampshire consumers to save money, protect their finances, and improve the environment by buying energy from lower cost and more efficient energy suppliers.

PSNH’s only public response to the report thus far has been to cite the dispatch of their coal units during extreme temperature events this year as evidence that the plants are necessary “insurance” against natural gas price increases. The report itself contradicts this, however, noting that even at this year’s levels of natural gas price spike frequency and severity in New England (due to a cold winter and a late spring heat wave two weeks ago), natural gas price fluctuations “have not served to give the PSNH fossil units enough of a boost to overcome their negative value,” and that PSNH has not offered any data or analysis to rebut this finding. That is, even with the extreme peaks of electric demand felt in the past year requiring their use more often than in the past few years, PSNH’s fossil fuel fired power units still lose ratepayer money.

The report assesses the real financial impacts of PSNH’s past and possible future decisions to invest in their coal units rather than shut them down, and demonstrates that the ratepayer money lost if PSNH’s electricity generation is sold off will be lower than many might fear. The key points raised by the report include:

  • Even in a best case scenario, PSNH’s already above-market rates will continue to climb. The investigation calculated PSNH’s energy service rates with a myriad of possible variables, including high natural gas prices and lower coal prices (the scenario that PSNH claims will validate its economic decisions) and a migration rate lower than PSNH reported this April. In all cases, the report found that PSNH’s default energy service rate would climb still higher than their current well above market 9.54 cents per kilowatt hour rate, to 10 or 11 cents per kilowatt hour.
  • Customers continue to flee PSNH’s energy service. CLF has been reporting the steep increase in residential customers rejecting PSNH’s high energy service rates for a while now. We’ve also noted that most large commercial customers had migrated away from PSNH years ago. The combination of these two trends led to the report this May that migration across all customers reached half of PSNH’s total load as of the end of April.
  • The full cost of the Scrubber Project has yet to be felt by ratepayers. PSNH has started recovering the cost of the ill-founded scrubber installation at Merrimack Station to the tune of 0.98 cents per kilowatt hour on a temporary basis. The report estimates that full recovery of the scrubber’s cost would nearly double that amount, to 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour added to ratepayers’ bills. This, of course, is a cost that competitive energy service providers don’t have to deal with.
  • Looming environmental compliance projects as Scrubber redux? PSNH is currently waiting for its new final permit from EPA for cooling water withdrawal and discharge at Merrimack Station. The final permit is likely to require cooling water intake structures (like those constructed at Brayton Point Station in MA), at a price tag of $111 million or more, in addition to other protections for water quality and wildlife. Costs associated with new or impending air quality requirements would require additional compliance at significant cost, and these estimates don’t even take into account the risk posed by CLF’s ongoing Clean Air Act citizen suit.
  • Potential ratepayer costs from divestment of PSNH’s electricity generation would be minimal. If PSNH’s generating assets are sold, New Hampshire state law allows PSNH to recover from ratepayers costs that are not covered by sale proceeds (“stranded costs”). The report roughly estimates that potential energy service rate increases to cover stranded costs would be no more than 0.9 cents per kilowatt hour and possibly much less, given the high value of PSNH’s hydro generation units.

The report ultimately recommends that the PUC initiate a proceeding to solicit formal feedback on the report and its conclusions. This proceeding would likely result in firmer value estimates for PSNH’s assets, interim steps that could be accomplished through the PUC’s existing authority, and more detailed recommendations for legislation.

As CLF and the Empower NH coalition have repeatedly noted, promoting and advancing competition in New Hampshire’s energy service markets yields only benefits for the state’s electricity ratepayers in the face of PSNH’s “ever higher costs” to ratepayers. While the PUC and the Legislature decide how to implement the recommendations of this report, ratepayers should continue to vote with their feet and leave PSNH’s energy service.

Success Story: Decoupling Utilities in Rhode Island

May 28, 2013 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

This month Rhode Island’s dominant utility, National Grid, made its second-ever filing with the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) under Rhode Island’s “revenue decoupling” statute. Grid’s filing clarifies matters in a debate that swirled around the environmental community in Rhode Island (and the rest of New England) for years but ought now to be resolved once and for all – an argument over whether decoupling is a rip-off of utility rate-payers. CLF (and other environmental advocates) have argued for years that there are important environmental benefits to be reaped from decoupling. Opponents, including some ratepayer advocates, argued that decoupling would be bad for rate-payers because it would inevitably lead to unjustified rate hikes.

Grid’s highly technical, 59-page filing with the PUC this month is dense reading, with pages upon pages of complicated charts, but at the end of the day the filing resolves the controversy. Decoupling is good for ratepayers. In the year that ended on March 31, 2013, Rhode Island electricity ratepayers will receive a collective refund from National Grid of $4.2 million, including over $42,000 in interest on ratepayer overpayments.

Some explanation of what decoupling is and how this controversy has developed is in order.

Traditional utility regulation provides little incentive for utilities to promote energy efficiency. This is because reduction in sales equals a reduction in profits for the utility.

Decoupling is a way to address this problem and to align the utility’s pecuniary interest with the public interest in efficiency and conservation. Decoupling separates (that is, “decouples”) a utility’s income from the amount of commodity the utility sells. This effectively removes a major disincentive to utility enthusiasm for and participation in energy efficiency measures.

Decoupling is not all that is needed to achieve carbon-emission reductions through energy efficiency; but decoupling is one important and necessary ingredient. Many states have decoupled, and there is a high correlation between states that reduce carbon emissions the most (thereby lowering ratepayer bills the most) and states that have decoupled.

Work on “decoupling” is one aspect of CLF’s wider work on reducing carbon emissions in order to address the climate change emergency. More specifically, decoupling is closely linked to our work on energy efficiency. One of the most effective ways to reduce carbon emissions in the short- and medium-term is to work on energy efficiency.

In 2008, CLF participated in a litigation in the PUC in which we tried to get the PUC to decouple gas prices. The litigation, PUC Docket # 3943, took weeks, and CLF presented an expert witness, crossed examined witnesses of other parties, submitted briefs. But CLF lost the case; the PUC ruled that it would not decouple gas prices in Rhode Island.

In 2009, CLF tried again, this time trying to get the PUC to decouple electricity prices. This litigation, PUC Docket 4065, also took weeks – again, we presented an expert witness, cross-examined other parties’ witnesses, briefed the issue. Again we lost; the PUC ruled that it would not decouple electricity prices.

The main argument against decoupling was that it would hurt ratepayers. The Division of Public Utilities and Carriers (this is the statutory ratepayer advocate in Rhode Island, and is different than the PUC) opposed decoupling for this reason, as did others. One expert witness against decoupling put it this way: “[T]he plan would allow a broad range of automatic rate adjustments that would result in rate increases . . . .There is no down side to the Company. The only down side is to the ratepayers.”

In response, CLF introduced evidence that actually came from 28 natural gas utilities and 12 electric utilities in 17 states across the country that have operative decoupling mechanisms. This broad range of utilities showed two important results from decoupling. The first, and smaller point is that decoupling adjustments tend to be minor. Compared to total residential retail rates, decoupling adjustments have been most often under two percent, positive or negative, with the majority under 1 percent. The second, and larger, point is that decoupling adjustments go both ways, sometimes providing small refunds to customers, sometimes providing small surcharges.

Nevertheless, despite the evidence we introduced, we lost both cases. The PUC was persuaded that decoupling was just a trick whereby the utility could always ratchet rates upward.

In 2010, CLF, working with other environmental organizations supported a bill in the Rhode Island General Assembly that would require decoupling of both electricity and gas prices. On May 20, 2010, Governor Donald Carcieri signed the bill into law.

On October 18, 2010, the PUC opened a new docket in order to implement the new law that mandated decoupling. This time, the question wasn’t whether Rhode Island would decouple, but how. CLF participated as a full party in the docket in order to ensure that the decoupling mechanisms adopted would be designed to reap all the environmental benefits without unduly hurting or harming ratepayers. Nine months later, on July 26, 2011, the PUC approved an excellent set of decoupling rules for both electricity and gas.

A year ago, in May 2012, Grid filed its first-ever report under the then-new Rhode Island decoupling statute and under the PUC rules. That report showed that, on the electricity side, Grid needed to rebate to Rhode Island ratepayers just over a million dollars for the year that had ended on March 31, 2012.

This month, Grid filed its second-ever report under the now-not-so-new-anymore decoupling statute.  This year, the amount Grid is going to rebate to Rhode Island ratepayers has more than quadrupled, to $4.2 million.  Rhode Island ratepayers are getting rebates – not additional payments – in both of the first two years that electricity decoupling has been implemented in Rhode Island.

Remember the main point that CLF’s expert witnesses made in the decoupling dockets that we lost in 2008 and 2009: decoupling adjustments go both ways. Sometimes ratepayers pay a little extra; sometimes ratepayers get a rebate. Real-world results from the first two years of decoupling show that CLF’s main point was 100% correct.  And not only are Rhode Island ratepayers getting a rebate from Grid, but everyone in Rhode Island enjoys the savings and efficiency benefits that decoupling enables – and the environment enjoys lower carbon emissions.

As I suggested a year ago when the first-year figures came out, there may be two lessons that can be learned from this – one about CLF and one about the broader environmental movement.

About CLF: One of the things I love about working for CLF is the stick-to-itiveness that the organization (and my fellow and sister staff members) have. In 2008, we litigated decoupling, and we lost. So we tried again. When we lost again, we turned to a different forum, the General Assembly. When the law we supported passed, we were pleased – but we didn’t rest. We still had another litigation in the PUC to make sure that the law was properly implemented.

CLF is nothing if not persistent!

And about the broader environmental movement: So often our opponents argue that environmental protections are too costly to implement. Too often, the arguments made by environmentalists about the benefits and savings from environmental protections are just not believed by decision-makers and by ordinary citizens. With decoupling, everyone (including the PUC and so many others) just “knew” that decoupling would be an expensive rip-off. When evidence like this comes to light about the financial and pecuniary benefits of environmental laws, we should make sure that the public knows.

 

Vermont Gas Pipeline: A Bridge to Nowhere?

May 23, 2013 by  | Bio |  3 Comment »

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Photo: DWeller88 @ flickr

It is important to build bridges, but we need to make sure they get us where we need to go.

The proposed expansion of the Vermont Gas pipeline may be more a minefield than a bridge, as one recent Vermont weekly  and one recent national energy blog reported.

The project will cut through valuable wetlands and farmland in Addison County. Future plans include crossing Lake Champlain, moving Vermont closer to gas supplies from fracking that is ongoing now in New York and Pennsylvania.

Proponents of the project, including Middlebury College and Vermont Gas advance an overly simplistic evaluation suggesting more natural gas is needed in Vermont because it is cheaper and cleaner than the oil and propane it will replace. Others suggest natural gas is a bridge to cleaner supplies that are in our future.

All bridges are not created equal. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel. The proposed gas pipeline will be in place for fifty to a hundred years. In that timeframe we need to solidly break our addiction to fossil fuels – including natural gas.

So what part of the project is in place to make sure natural gas is actually a valuable bridge and not a new addiction? Nothing. And that is sad.

We can do better than throw up our hands and blindly accept expensive and environmentally damaging new pipelines at a time when we should be moving away from fossil fuels.

Here are some ideas to start moving Vermont in a cleaner direction when it comes to new pipelines:

  1. Provide a more sophisticated evaluation that answers where this pipeline is taking us in fifty years.
  2. Stop providing unqualified support. If this is a cleaner solution, make sure it lives up to its promise. Sensitive and valuable environmental resources should be off the table.
  3. Meet climate goals by dramatically increasing efficiency, prohibiting supplies from fracking and limiting the use and lifespan of any new pipeline.


If we build bridges, let’s make sure they get us to a place we want to be.

 

Fighting Bad Bills in Rhode Island

May 13, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

My colleagues in CLF’s Rhode Island office have been doing some important work that deserves attention this legislative session. Two of their efforts stand out: opposing the governor’s attempt to create special legislation to import power from Hydro-Quebec, and opposing the Rhode Island House leadership’s attempt to create a state Commerce Department that would take over permitting functions from the Department of Environmental Management and Coastal Resources Management Council.

Rhode Island State House

Rhode Island State House, courtesy of Mr. Ducke @ Flickr

You’ve likely read more here (or here, or here) about Hydro-Quebec. The company, which (unsurprisingly, given the name) produces power from large-scale hydroelectric dams located throughout the Canadian province of Quebec, has been making a strong push to sell this power to states throughout New England. Hydroelectric power might not be so bad on its own, but Hydro-Quebec has some serious issues. Not least of these is that the most prominent proposal for transmitting additional power from Quebec to New England is a proposed transmission project through New Hampshire – the Northern Pass – that is being developed by New Hampshire’s dirtiest utility and is, in its current form, a deeply flawed proposal that may not provide meaningful environmental benefits. And, also distressingly, Hydro-Quebec has sought special legislation in each of the states it has been courting.

Here in Rhode Island, the governor has been pushing one such piece of special legislation; CLF Staff Attorney Jerry Elmer has been pushing back. The governor’s bill would require National Grid (Rhode Island’s only major electric utility) to solicit proposals and then enter into a long-term contract for a large-scale, 150-megawatt hydroelectric project. This requirement would not only displace but likely eliminate local, small-scale renewable projects that the current long-term contracting statute was designed to benefit. At the same time, it would likely drive up energy costs, sending Rhode Island dollars to Canada. And, again, importing more power from Quebec through this mechanism seems calculated to advance the poorly conceived Northern Pass project in New Hampshire. As Jerry told the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, it is rare that environmental organizations, energy utilities, existing renewable and conventional power plant owners, and ratepayer advocates unite so seamlessly and forcefully as they have in opposition to the large hydropower bill. And the representatives from these diverse interests all recognized Jerry’s leadership, frequently introducing their own testimony with the phrase, “As Mr. Elmer said …” – certainly a sign of effective advocacy.

Meanwhile, Rhode Island House leadership has been touting an “Economic Development Package” of bills designed to enhance the business climate in Rhode Island. Unfortunately, one of these bills would move DEM’s permitting functions and all CRMC programs and functions to a newly created “Executive Office of Commerce.”  The purpose of these moves would be to ensure that environmental permitting delays do not hold up business development.

At a hearing before the House Finance Committee, CLF Vice President Tricia Jedele pointed out the many reasons this proposed bill makes no sense whether viewed through the prism of policy or law. (You can view her testimony here, beginning midway through minute 162.) The bill ignores the reasons for permitting delays under the current regime: some delays are the result of the severe staff cutbacks DEM has suffered in the last several years; others are perfectly justified as a way to protect Rhode Island’s greatest asset – its natural resources – against exploitation. Moving permitting functions to a new Executive Office of Commerce would not restore DEM staff or better prevent exploitation.  Moreover, the bill suggests a tension between business and environment, even though a robust business climate and a clean, healthy environment can peacefully coexist under an adequate permitting regime. Perhaps most importantly, though, the bill could throw Rhode Island’s environmental permitting programs into total disarray. Many permitting programs are founded on authority delegated to the state by EPA under a host of federal environmental laws. These programs are subject to EPA oversight, and tinkering with them could easily result in EPA’s withdrawing approval and taking over permitting functions itself. Needless to say, this is not the goal of the commerce bill. Instead, Tricia told the Finance Committee, a simple solution would be to leave DEM and CRMC’s functions alone, to staff them adequately, and to add staffers to the new Department of Commerce who can help guide businesses through the permitting process. This argument was well-received, and CLF now has the opportunity to work with the House to reform the bill.

Again, my colleagues have been too busy doing this work to call attention to it, but I think it’s important to take a moment to recognize just how valuable they are to Rhode Island and its environment.

EPA Must Follow the Law, Set Rules for Power Plants

May 10, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

While harm from climate change becomes more apparent every day, EPA is dragging its feet in setting much-needed limitations on greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants. This failure is a plain violation of the Clean Air Act. So CLF recently took the first step to spur EPA into action. Working with attorneys at Clean Air Task Force, we let EPA know that if it does not act, we will sue.

Kite on Marconi Beach

Kite on Marconi Beach, courtesy of EandJsFilmCrew @ Flickr. Recent extreme weather caused significant damage at Cape Cod’s Marconi Beach.

The Clean Air Act requires EPA to issue regulations limiting emissions of air pollutants that may “endanger public health or welfare.” We know well that greenhouse gases drive climate change and therefore endanger public health and welfare in many ways: droughts pose risks to our food supply; sea level rise increases flooding of vulnerable communities; and extreme weather events threaten to wash coastal infrastructure out to sea. Nevertheless, during the early and mid-2000s, EPA all but ignored greenhouse gases. Many states and environmental groups (including CLF) sued to make EPA do something.

First, we argued, greenhouse gases are air pollutants subject to EPA regulation. Second, we said, EPA had to decide one way or the other whether greenhouse gases were dangerous; if so, the Clean Air Act imposes an absolute duty on EPA to regulate them. In a fine opinion by now-retired Justice Stevens, the Supreme Court agreed with us: greenhouse gases are pollutants subject to EPA regulation, and EPA had to decide whether they are dangerous. Two years later, EPA decided that greenhouse gases do, in fact, pose a danger to public health. This means EPA is required by law to regulate them.

After all that, EPA did begin to regulate greenhouse gases. However, it did not limit emissions from the single largest category of greenhouse gas polluters – power plants – which account for nearly 40% of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions. If any polluters need robust regulation, power plants do. Finally, after more pushing from CLF and other environmental organizations, EPA published proposed standards for greenhouse gas emissions by power plants.

Under the Clean Air Act, these proposed standards started a clock – EPA had one year to issue final rules. Instead, EPA announced on Day 364 that the final rules would be delayed indefinitely. This delay is both illegal and wrong. EPA now has sixty days to fix its error and issue final rules that seriously address the most pressing problem of our time.

If it does not, CLF and Clean Air Task Force will turn to federal court to compel EPA to act.

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