Council Endorses EPA Emissions Rule
Supporters hope to set precedent for Texas
At its June 12 meeting, the City Council passed a resolution in support of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's recently proposed carbon rule, staying in stride with the city's net-zero emissions goal (set in April). The resolution's supporters hope to set a precedent for the rest of Texas – effectively defying the declaration of Attorney General (and gubernatorial candidate) Greg Abbott that he intends to fight the EPA restrictions.
The EPA's new rule, released June 2 for public comment and intended to begin taking effect next year, proposes limiting greenhouse gas pollution by cutting carbon emissions from coal plants by 30% (from 2005 levels) before 2030. While environmental advocates endorse the ozone-restoring implications of the change, critics reflexively argue that the restrictions could hurt the economy, cut jobs, and drive up electricity costs.
The resolution, sponsored by City Council Member Mike Martinez and co-sponsored by CMs Kathie Tovo and Laura Morrison, is the first passed in support of the EPA rule by a major city. Al Armendariz, Sierra Club's Beyond Coal senior campaign representative, said the Sierra Club and allies approached Martinez with the resolution because they felt that the current public comment period for the EPA's carbon rule provided a great opportunity for Austin to express its support.
"It's important because the fossil fuel industry and their support in campaign contributions are going to be attacking this rule," Armendariz said. "They fight all reasonable efforts to reduce carbon emissions. It's important for cities like Austin to express support and show the EPA that there are millions of Americans, including the city of Austin – the capital of Texas – that want to support the climate and reduce pollution."
Lawmakers in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Kansas have already vocally opposed the rule change, passing laws to fight the carbon regulations. The EPA has estimated that the rule's implementation will initially cost the U.S. economy $7.3 billion to $8.8 billion annually – but that the eventual health benefits from a cleaner air supply are estimated to return between $55 billion and $93 billion.
As for what the crackdown on coal plants could mean for Austin – city utility Austin Energy, directed by Council policy, has already been taking measures to reduce its overall carbon footprint. Since Austin's Climate Protection Plan was passed in 2007, the city has worked with AE to increase its renewable energy assets to 35% of delivered power, and to contain the city's overall energy use to 800 megawatts by 2020. Not only will these objectives be completed by 2015, according to AE spokesman Carlos Cordova, but the utility is also working steadily to achieve its net-zero emissions goal by 2050.
One obvious roadblock to Austin's net-zero emissions future, and a major concern for environmental groups, is the Fayette Power Project. Co-owned by Austin and the Lower Colorado River Authority, the coal plant is the sixth-largest source of carbon pollution in Texas, out of 120 plants. "What we want Austin Energy to do is to take out and retire its share of that power station," Armendariz said. "The power station has three boilers and Austin owns about 600 megawatts of that power."
Cordova said AE has had many discussions about the future of the Fayette Power Project; selling the city's interest has been considered, but that would not serve to cut or end the emissions it produces. "There have been Council resolutions for us to look at ways to lessen its use or to sell it, so that's what we've been studying and looking at," said Cordova. "One thing we have committed to is to lessen its use, and that also reduces emissions."
Meanwhile, no new coal plants are in the queue to be built in Texas. According to Kip Averitt, chairman of the Texas Clean Energy Coalition, Texas' energy portfolio is shifting from being dominated by coal to being spread more evenly among coal, natural gas, and renewables. Averitt said that while the majority of air pollution comes from vehicles – not coal plants – the EPA's carbon rule is a good step in the right direction. According to EPA estimates, the eventual nationwide emissions reduction would be the equivalent of taking two-thirds of all cars and trucks off the roads.
"It's a step. There's no silver bullet," Averitt said. "Many things have to be done to make our air cleaner. We at the Texas Clean Energy Coalition think there are things that could be done to make our air cleaner and at the same time increase jobs and increase the tax base in Texas, and use our natural resources to get the job done."
See more on the EPA's Clean Power Plan at www.epa.gov.