Can West Virginia comply with President Obama’s Clean Power Plan? And if so, at what cost?
Those are the questions Randy Huffman is trying to answer. Huffman is Secretary of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.
Huffman came on “The Front Porch” podcast to talk about how his agency is dealing with Obama's plan to reduce greenhouse gases from power plants.
Here are 10 takeaways from our interview with Huffman that will (hopefully) help you understand the Clean Power Plan’s impact on West Virginia.
1. West Virginia DEP feels blindsided by EPA
Huffman says the EPA did not work with his staff on the plan, even though federal officials consulted with national environmental groups.
So when the final plan was announced earlier this month, Huffman says he was shocked. West Virginia utilities would have to reduce their emissions rate by 37 percent – not the 27 percent they’d seen in an earlier draft.
“We never did get a good answer in any of the briefings we had about why they changed the number…We didn’t see that coming,” he said.
West Virginia’s target is among the most stringent -- 29 states have easier targets, 17 harder, percentage-wise (only 47 states are involved at this time, because Alaska and Hawaii are special cases, and Vermont has no significant fossil fuel power.)
West Virginia must achieve a 2030 emissions rate of 1,305 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour, compared to a less stringent goal of 1,620 lbs CO2/MWh under the proposed rule.
2. About the “Just say no” option
Many coal-state officials, including Senate President Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, want states to refuse to cooperate with the EPA.
First of all, Huffman says there’s no rush to declare the state’s strategy. The deadline to make that decision is September 2016.
“You don’t ever say no until you need to say no, which is over a year away,” he said.
Huffman says taking the “Just say no” path could be risky.
“If ‘Just say no’ is your position, what you’re saying is, I believe I’m going to win in court, and if I lose that, I am willing to accept the federal plan,” Huffman said.
The feds are likely to impose a cap and trade scheme if the state loses in court and does not have an alternate plan, he said.
“You won’t have a seat at the table if you just say no.”
3. Anything is doable, but…
Is it even possible for West Virginia to comply?
Environmental consultant Evan Hansen of Downstream Strategies says yes. He issued a report recommending an “All of the above” approach – less coal-fired power, more renewables, and increased energy efficiency.
Huffman replies, “With enough money, you can do anything.”
But doing so could mean increase the risk of blackouts, and lead to the shutdown of major power plants, he said.
“We can comply, if we shut down John Amos Units 2 and 3, Fort Martin Units 1 & 2, Mount Storm Unit 3, Grant Town Unit 1A…yeah, we have to take nearly 4,000 megawatts coal power production to comply.”
4. Compliance option 1: Reduce the rate of CO2 emissions by 37 percent
This option is hard, Huffman said, because West Virginia is almost entirely reliant on coal-fired power. You can’t reach it by merely shutting down existing coal power plants.
“What’s really important to understand about a rate is that, if we only had one (coal-fired) power plant left in the state…it’s not going to meet the target.”
And unlike most other states, West Virginia has NO utility-run natural gas power plants - although several are planned.
5. Compliance option 2: Total CO2 reduction
The state also could seek to reduce the total emissions produced here, not just the rate.
Huffman says this is “probably more achievable if there is a cap-and-trade mechanism built into it.”
It’s like the salary cap in baseball, he said – you could have higher emissions, but you’ll pay a penalty for it.
6. We’ve already made some progress toward meeting the goal
Since 2012, almost 3,000 megawatts of coal-fired electricity generation has been shut down in West Virginia.
Mostly, this is a reaction to other EPA rules about mercury and other pollutants. And these were mostly older, less efficient plants.
West Virginia needs about 3,820 megawatts more in reductions to reach EPA goals.
7. Utilities need certainty
“We need to understand how power plants work. A lot of elected folks out there, and a lot of others in various industries are calling for us to shake our fist at EPA and all that,” Huffman said.
“Electric power plants, they don’t operate that way. They need certainty. They need long lead times to make investments. They want to know the rules, and at the end of the day, they’re going to get there. It might be extremely expensive.”
8. The W.Va. Legislature will have the final say on the state’s response to EPA
Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a bill to give them more information and oversight in the state’s response. House Bill 2004 requires the DEP to produce a feasibility study within 180 days of release of the EPA rule (the final rule is expected to be released in September, Huffman said.)
The report will create a number of if-then scenarios, Huffman said.
The new law also requires the DEP to get legislative approval before they submit a plan to the EPA. That EPA deadline is Sept. 6, 2016.
Without the law, there would be no requirement to take this plan to the Legislature. Huffman says with the new law, they are required to receive legislative approval.
(Editor’s note: Expect a special legislative session next summer – just in time for the 2016 election season.)
9. Obama is “betting the farm” on global cooperation
Huffman said that by itself, the Clean Power Plan has a tiny, tiny impact on global temperatures.
“By itself, it doesn’t do anything. It’s necessary the rest of the world participate or it’s not going to have any impact,” he said.
“Global issues require global solutions. I think that’s what the President is trying to do, but we’re betting the farm on it. If the rest of the world doesn’t want to play, by the time we figure that out, it will be too late for the U.S., economically. Now, if the climate change issue is real and not addressed, it could be too late for everyone on the planet.”
10. Pressure on coal-fired power won’t go away with a new President
“You can’t elect that away…it’s not going to change to the degree people think. There’s a mood across the country about what fossil fuels are, and you’re not going to elect that away,” Huffman said.
“If we just fight and think that we’re so obviously right that we’re going to win, we’ll lose.”
BONUS info: Huffman is a native West Virginian, an avid sports fisherman and the Support Group Commander in the 130th Airlift Wing in Charleston.
“I enjoy working with people who have different perspectives that are willing to come to the center. I don’t have much for folks on either side that want to stay way off to the left or right and argue…I don’t have much use for that.”
DISCLOSURE: Scott's wife works for Huffman as the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, which may explain Scott's first question on this week's podcast of "The Front Porch."
An edited version of “The Front Porch” airs Fridays at 4:50 p.m. on West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s radio network, and the full version is available above.
Share your opinions with us about these issues, and let us know what you'd like us to discuss in the future. Send a tweet to @radiofinn or @wvpublicnews, or e-mail Scott at sfinn @ wvpublic.org
What you need to know on the Clean Power Plan’s Four Building Blocks in West Virginia – with special thanks to VOX.com
1. Building Block 1: Operate coal plants more efficiently
Almost 3,000 megawatts already shut down in the last two years – not directly because of the Clean Power Plan, but because of new rules on mercury and other pollution.
They were somewhat more inefficient, older plants – cutting another 3,800 megawatts of coal-fired power would require closing newer facilities, Huffman said.
2. Building Block 2: Run gas plants more often, coal less
WVDEP says this is not a good option for West Virginia, as the state does not have any natural-gas-fired power plants, nor are any under construction. Several are in the planning stages.
3. Building Block 3: Ramp up renewable power
The EPA now believes renewables could rise to 28 percent of the electricity supply by 2030
WVDEP says the EPA is unrealistic, and that West Virginia would need to expand its wind capacity to seven times its current size in order to reach its targets.
4. Building Block 4 – increase energy efficiency
WVDEP views EPA’s efficiency estimates as grossly out of whack. Evan Hansen of Downstream Strategies says that West Virginia can make big improvements here.