Credit: Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder
Georgia’s coal-fired plant closings likely to go on despite Supreme Court EPA ruling
Environmental groups are calling on the U.S. Congress to take action after a U.S. Supreme Court limiting the ability to enforce carbon emission pollution dealt a blow in the fight against climate change.
The West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency opinion was a victory for Georgia and 18 other Republican-led states as it limits Democratic President Joe Biden’s ability to pursue his climate goals.
Environmentalists worry that unchecked environmental policy could significantly delay the U.S.’s ability to reduce carbon pollution at a time when scientists are urging immediate action to curb emissions to avoid the worst effects of climate change. They also called for the passage of legislative packages that would pour billions of dollars into clean energy.
But as the nation’s president and environmentalists organization sound alarms, some experts say the ruling likely won’t impede progress in Georgia toward closing air polluting coal-fired power plants and moving toward cleaner forms of energy.
By a 6-to-3 vote Thursday, the conservative justices who form the court’s majority ruled that Congress only empowered the EPA to narrowly regulate the emissions of individual power plants, not establish sweeping industry-wide caps on emissions from coal and gas power.
Because of this ruling, it is imperative that new federal standards are set for coal, gas, and power plant carbon emissions, said David Doniger, senior strategic director of the Climate and Clean Energy Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“We think that’s the direction the Biden administration was headed anyway,” Doniger said. “It is time for them to report with a standard based on the kind of controls, kind of technology that can be applied to coal plants and the reductions that can be achieved by that.”
The ruling will likely have greater implications in states other than Georgia, including West Virginia, where coal mining is a powerful economic and political force.
Thursday’s ruling invalidated a Washington, D.C. Circuit’s decision that the Trump administration based its overturning of the Clean Power Plan on an erroneous interpretation of the Clean Air Act.
“The best thing is if we would simply go in and put in some sort of carbon tax or some sort of explicit limits on CO2,” said Tim Lieuwen, executive director of the Strategic Energy Institute at Georgia Tech.
“In the absence of those, the EPA is having to try to figure out all these other indirect ways,” he said. The best way for us to handle this is via legislation. It’s just a matter of the executive branch trying to figure out what they can do.”
In Georgia, various environmental groups have been calling for Georgia Power to speed up its plans to retire its coal-fired plants and have engaged in a long-standing battle over the company’s plans to store coal ash in ponds at their plants under a state permitting process.
This year, Georgia Power, the state’s largest utility, announced plans to close the last of its coal-fired plants next decade, including 12 coal units by 2028 that will be offset by increased natural gas production and soon shore up the system’s renewable energy capacity.
A Georgia Power spokesman said on Thursday that the company was still reviewing the court’s decision.
The nonprofit Environment Georgia said the court’s ruling also puts more pressure on state and local governments to reduce pollution, since Georgia has three of the nation’s top 100 polluting power plants.
“The Supreme Court just made the monumental task of cleaning up our air and reducing climate-warming pollution much, much harder,” Director Jennette Gayer said. “Georgians count on the EPA to protect our air and environment. Now that the Court has put a stable climate even further from reach, state and local leaders must seek out other ways to reduce emissions and secure a clean and healthy future.”
Georgia Power said in January that it would continue to work to ensure coal ash ponds are safely closed, after the EPA announced plans to crack down on dangerous coal ash dump sites as the agency sought to stop toxins from leaching into groundwater.
Georgia Power is already far along in its plans to close coal-fired plants in favor of cleaner, renewable energy sources, regardless of the outcome of Thursday’s ruling, Lieuwen said.
Georgia Power’s parent company, Southern Co., is targeting net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
“Georgia Power and even just the Southeast more generally, is really doubling down on nuclear natural gas and solar,” Lieuwen said. “There’s a lot of economic reasons for that so I don’t see it affecting that decision.
“I think the question is not so much if this is going to slow down their plans,” Lieuwen said. “I think the question is will there be additional congressional action that could see that transition speed up before that 2050 goal?”
Meanwhile, Georgia’s most extensive project — the nuclear expansion of Plant Vogtle — which has been delayed and over budget for many years could be completed in 2023. Lieuwen said nuclear energy will make a big bump in renewable power once it comes online.
Chris Carr, Georgia’s attorney general, signed a brief for the Supreme Court case calling on the justices to curtail federal power over environmental regulations.
“Today, SCOTUS held that President Biden’s EPA doesn’t have the authority to regulate the country’s entire energy grid.,” Carr tweeted on Thursday.
“This attempted federal power grab would’ve killed jobs & raised electricity prices, & we’re proud to have joined (West Virginia) in this fight.”
The ruling threatens Biden’s goal, codified in an executive order in December 2021, to reach a zero-carbon electricity sector by 2035, Emily Schiller, a lawyer who heads Holland & Hart’s environmental resources practice group and represented power producers who challenged the rule, said Thursday.
When the Clean Air Act was passed by Congress, it provided the EPA with a way to address harmful pollutants causing poor air quality, such as smog in metro Atlanta, which is primarily the result of tailpipe emissions, but also fueled by power plants, factories and other sources of pollution.
“What’s happening now is we have this problem of climate change, which is not due to pollutants that give you health and respiratory problems but it causes our planet to heat up, causes glaciers to melt,” Lieuwen said. “And frankly, our Congress can’t seem to figure out a way to pass legislation to limit carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere.”
Vickie Patton, general counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the decisions might only cover power plants but also places stronger emphasis on continuing to tackle pollution coming from the tailpipes of cars and trucks.
“EPA continues to have an urgent responsibility to address the dangerous methane being discharged by oil and gas industrial activities all across our country,” she said.
The South has the most to lose from unchecked climate change and the most to gain from an economy based on clean energy, said Frank Rambo, a senior Attorney and leader of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Clean Energy and Air Program.
“Today’s ruling means the same thing in Georgia that it does for the entire country — a weakened regulatory framework and a diminished set of tools to cut carbon emissions on a national level,” Rambo said. “This makes it even more important that state agencies and utility regulators recognize the immense value and opportunities that are available here and now to embrace cost-effective clean energy options, especially as customer demand for renewables only continues to grow.”
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.