GHG: regulation vs. legislation?

I asked my friend Graham Noyes, attorney at renewable energy law firm Stoel Rives focused on bioenergy projects, federal energy incentives and carbon monetization, for his thoughts on the Kerry Lieberman bill.

Q: What was your main takeaway from the bill?
A: Some context first. There’s a massive potential hammer out there on GHG emitters in terms of the risk of regulation under the Clean Air Act (CAA) by the EPA, which has already issued an endangerment finding that found GHGs to be a danger to public health and welfare, thereby making the EPA obligated to regulate GHG’s under the CAA. So the wheels are turning forward at the EPA to regulate GHG. That’s what the EPA will do if nothing else happens. So it’s really surprising that Kerry Lieberman imposes what I think to be much stricter limitations on the EPA than the status quo.

In that sense the bill is very favorable to those industries that have the most to lose from GHG regulation, because it essentially weakens the regulatory landscape for GHG intensive industry when compared to what the EPA is likely to do. That’s why we have the strong industry support lined up for the bill. What’s odd is that we have universal Republication opposition (from a party known for its pro-business stance), and near universal Democratic support (from a party known to support more environmental protections). That is a fundamental disconnect.

The 800 lb gorilla in the room is the EPA’s ability to utilize the CAA if the Kerry-Lieberman bill stalls. That’s a really interesting regulatory and political landscape for this thing to play out.

Q: Can you be more specific on how Kerry Lieberman is easier on emitters?
A: We don’t know what the EPA will do precisely in order to get its targets in the endangerment finding. Emissions levels, cost implications for regulated industries – we don’t know. But it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which the EPA ratchets down harder and harder on these emissions to get the problem under control, specifically the PPM concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. By contrast, Kerry Lieberman has a slow front-end phase-in (with only some industries included in the first years), price collars and very substantial offset programs to lower the economic impact, none of which the EPA would necessarily do. Most people expect the EPA would be more onerous than Kerry Lieberman.

Q: Is legislation or regulation better at the end of the day?
A: The Clean Air Act was not designed for GHGs, but for what we usually think of as pollutants – emissions that are directly unhealthy. CO2 is not something people worry about breathing, it’s the indirect risk of global warming caused by the escalating CO2 levels that triggered the finding. CO2 is also more ubiquitous than other pollutants hence the tailoring rule actually reduces scope of CAA enforcement.

The EPA would regulate by mandate, not by consensus. If we can’t get legislation passed and the EPA begins enforcement, there will be a lot of criticism about over-reaching and strangling industry. EPA would take a lot of heat for this.

Q: Some argue that EPA will take much longer to regulate than legislation.
A: I don’t necessarily think so. This legislation requires extensive rule-making that will take a long time to happen, consider the RFS2 delay. And the EPA won’t build in phase-in limits like Kerry Lieberman. If EPA moves ahead on its present course, I think it would have a faster impact on emissions than the bill. Ultimately, I think this landscape will spur a deal with a surprising alliance.

Q: What are the top three ramifications on business from this bill?
A: The bill would establish a long-term value to CO2e reductions. This will benefit all renewable energy projects andsupport US offset projects in methane capture, agriculture and forestry that make good GHG sense.