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Idaho Energy Office Moves Forward with EPA Coal Plant Pollution Rules – Failure to Act Would Have EPA Write Idaho’s Compliance Plan Instead

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It’s no secret that some Idaho legislators don’t exactly come down on the science side of the climate change issue and would just as soon tell the Environmental Protection Agency exactly what it can do with its rules telling Idaho to reduce its climate-changing power plant emissions.

So give John Chatburn and the state Office of Energy Resources credit for calmly explaining to climate-denying lawmakers that it is actually in Idaho’s best interests to play ball with EPA and to show we’re serious about curtailing our greenhouse gas pollution.

“We are going to recommend the prudent thing to do is to be prepared,” OER Administrator Chatburn told the House Environment, Energy, & Technology Committee Feb. 4 as he briefed committee members on Idaho’s plans to comply with a controversial EPA rule aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. “It is better to have a state plan with state oversight than a federal plan with federal oversight.”

That’s not what many legislators want to hear, of course. They, like Chatburn and Gov. Butch Otter’s administration, believe EPA is out of line with its Clean Power Plan, which sets individual state greenhouse gas reduction targets. To be sure, Idaho’s “lift” to comply with the rule is not as great as in many states, in part because Idaho has no coal power plants. That doesn’t mean Idaho utility customers are off the hook, however. We’ll be affected because we rely on out-of-state coal plants for 40 percent or more of our electricity, but in reality that gives us a real opportunity to help our neighboring states reduce their emissions and to foster more clean energy resources here at home.

Some lawmakers bristle at the landmark Clean Power Plan out of a reflexive distrust (or worse) of anything coming out of the federal EPA that so much as hints of an environmental mandate. Some recoil at the idea that Idaho or any other state needs to address the largest single source of climate changing greenhouse gas emissions – burning coal for electricity – mostly because they don’t believe in climate change to begin with.

Either way, as the point man in Idaho’s prudent and straightforward plan to comply with the EPA coal plant rule, Chatburn and his OER are taking exactly the right course as they satisfy the new federal requirements while at the same time try to ensure the compliance plan keeps Idaho in charge. Chatburn had a simple answer when asked by EPA-bashing lawmakers – more than once – what would happen if Idaho ignored the feds, as some states have threatened to do. It’s simple, he said. EPA would just write the state’s compliance plan itself.

Some 27 states are suing EPA to block the CPP and its greenhouse gas reduction mandates. Idaho is among only four states not suing EPA (the others are Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee), and a big reason why is that the state argued successfully to convince EPA to revise downward its requirements for Idaho in ways that make it far easier for Idaho to comply. Two powerful House committee chairmen have been very public in their climate-denial views, while the chairman of this EE&T Committee, Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls, penned a November opinion piece in Idaho newspapers urging Attorney General Lawrence Wasden to join those states suing EPA over the rule. To his credit, Wasden declined, resisting the opportunity to sue the federal government at the drop of a hat.

For all the vitriol and attacks on EPA for its long-overdue rules to crack down on coal pollution, more states are gradually, if grudgingly, beginning to write plans to comply with the CPP, even while still in court trying to stop EPA’s rules. The reasoning is that if the states don’t prevail in the courts, they at least will have a voice in how they’ll comply with the new law. More important, they have the opportunity to plot their own course to a cleaner energy future.

“What we’re hearing on the implementation front is that despite all the rhetoric and the doomsday in the litigation, that there are a lot of state energy and environment regulators and industry in a lot of states – not just in those states that are supporting us in the litigation – that are spending a lot of creative energy to come up with smart, reasonable, sensible plans” to comply with the CPP, Lorie Schmidt, EPA’s associate general council for air and radiation, was quoted by the daily Energy & Environment newsletter as telling an environmental law meeting in Washington, D.C.

For his part, Chatburn walked legislators through the EPA coal plant rule and the next steps as Idaho plans its next move. That will mean submitting a nonbinding or “initial plan submittal” to EPA by this September, at which time Idaho will also ask for a routine two-year extension to determine its precise compliance course and to submit a more formal implementation plan in 2018. It is doubtful the state Legislature will become very involved in the process, at least in this early stage, other than to possibly review any proposed state agency rule changes that might be required to implement Idaho’s Clean Power Plan proposal. That likely would not happen until 2017 or more likely in 2018.

Meanwhile, Chatburn told lawmakers that his OER, the Public Utilities Commission, and the Department of Environmental Quality expect to begin meeting in the coming couple months to plan a series of public meetings around the state to explain the process to Idahoans and solicit ideas on how to move forward.

As would be expected, the Q&A portion of Chatburn’s presentation featured questions such as one from Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, who asked why, if climate change is “not a settled opinion, …we are proceeding so heavily down this road?”

“I believe the state of Idaho at least is proceeding very deliberately and cautiously down this road,” Chatburn replied, reminding lawmakers yet again that EPA will write Idaho’s plan if the state doesn’t play ball. He quickly added, “It would appear the state of Idaho is in pretty good shape itself” in having to meet the EPA emissions targets that were lowered in response to the state’s objections and additional feedback to EPA.

Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, asked again what would happen if Idaho simply refused to cooperate with EPA.

“If we don’t send a plan, EPA’s going to send us a letter within 90 days wondering what the heck we’re doing,” Chatburn said.

Rep. Heather Scott, a Republican from the town of Blanchard in North Idaho and a renowned critic of what she views as the federal government’s odious meddling in state affairs, bristled at Idaho having to “submit” to the EPA and said when her constituents “figure it out, they’re not going to be happy.”

PUC President Paul Kjellander and DEQ Director (and former senator) John Tippets attended Chatburn’s presentation but were not asked by the committee to outline their agencies’ roles in the Clean Power Plan process.

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