Coal industry allies on and off Capitol Hill have seized on emails sent between a Sierra Club lobbyist and U.S. EPA staff that they say confirm their belief that the agency and environmental advocates colluded to write a new power plant rule that would end coal-fired electric generation in the United States.
The 2011 and early 2012 emails were between John Coequyt, the Sierra Club's federal and international climate campaigner, and two EPA policy office staffers who were preparing to release the agency's first proposal to limit carbon dioxide from new power plants in April 2012.
EPA has since withdrawn the original proposal and proposed a new one last year. But both versions required that new coal-fired power plants include carbon capture and storage technology to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
In the emails, Coequyt appears to question whether new coal-fired power would be viable if EPA moved forward with a CCS mandate. In one missive, Coequyt provided EPA staffers Michael Goo and Alex Barron with a list of new coal projects that he said had been mothballed pending EPA regulations but that might be revived if the agency's proposal was insufficiently stringent.
"If a standard is set that these plants could meet, there is a small chance that [the companies] could decide to revive the proposal," Coequyt said in one email.
Attorney Christopher Horner, affiliated with the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, obtained the emails through a Freedom of Information Act request and released them this week. Horner led the effort that uncovered former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson's private email account.
In another email, Coequyt appeared to dismiss then-EPA air chief Gina McCarthy's statements to the media that her agency's standard would not be a death blow to coal-fired generation.
"Pants on fire," he wrote, also forwarding an article from Politico titled "Coal to remain viable, says EPA's McCarthy at Coal-Gen."
Narrative catches fire
The emails released by Horner are redacted so they do not show Goo or Barron agreeing with Coequyt's assessment of CCS's level of development or the wisdom of avoiding new coal-fired generation.
But the exchange has nonetheless become a favorite talking point with industry advocates who have long said that President Obama's EPA is too close to environmentalists and is pursuing a "war on coal" with its carbon policies.
"Unfortunately, this is what happens when regulations are being written by environmental special interests," Mike Duncan, CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said during an appearance yesterday at the Newseum.
"These emails show an unprecedented level of coordination between EPA and environmental groups, with no interest in producing energy and every interest in a political agenda," he continued. "They also left a clear impression that the EPA's New Source Performance Standards were intentionally crafted to make it impossible to build new coal plants in this country."
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said today in his opening remarks at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on the president's Climate Action Plan that the emails show that the environmental group and EPA "met and corresponded frequently about the agency's work on coal regulations."
While the agency has maintained that its rules will not put new coal-fired generation out of reach, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), the panel's ranking member, said, "The agency was working closely behind the scenes with Sierra Club -- an environmental organization that was pushing the agency to adopt standards that would be impossible for power plants to meet."
Also this morning, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) cited the emails when introducing a resolution of disapproval against EPA's power plant rule (see related story).
"The point here is to eliminate coal jobs in America," McConnell said about EPA's intentions. "The emails even referred to previously shuttered power plants as 'defeated,' making the intent behind coal-related actions seem clear."
Luke Popovich of the National Mining Association said the correspondence between the agency and the environmental group showed evidence of "cohabitation." He wrote in an email, "They show, in my view, how the Sierra Club and EPA collaborate to set U.S. energy policy. The two are not formally married, of course, but they appear to live together."
EPA, greens respond
Top Sierra Club spokeswoman Maggie Kao sought to refocus the conversation on the recent chemical spill in West Virginia, which she linked to the coal industry. The chemical spilled was used to wash coal, among other things.
"It may come as a surprise to right-wing propaganda outlets that the Sierra Club has a very effective Beyond Coal campaign, but we have been fighting to protect our air, our water, and our communities from toxic coal pollution for years," Kao said in a statement, responding specifically to a story about the emails in the conservative Washington Free Beacon.
"As part of that effort, we strongly supported standards that require new coal plants to use the same technology the coal industry has publicly promoted for years, as these emails and our public comments show," Kao said.
Even though the coal industry has touted the prospect of clean coal technologies, including carbon capture, companies say the efforts are not available enough commercially. EPA's standard, they say, will only prevent new plants from being built.
Environmental groups and the Obama administration, however, say CCS is ready. McCarthy, now the EPA administrator, suggested at the Senate hearing this morning that the agency had arrived at that conclusion by reaching out to multiple parties.
"I think if you look at the history of EPA, we meet as much with industry groups as we do with environmental groups," she said. "It's our job to understand what concerns people have and work with them to make sure that we're doing our job appropriately."
The environmental community does not speak with one voice on this issue. In its effort to eliminate coal as a power source, it has also opposed CCS projects in several states, arguing that utilities should invest in renewable energy sources rather than spend billions on making coal cleaner.
Manik Roy, vice president for strategic outreach at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said that Coequyt's views laid out in the emails did not represent a consensus among environmentalists, let alone within EPA.
"The environmental community has a range of views on whether we should be advancing CCS," he said in an email.
Roy's own group is managing a coalition that includes the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Clean Air Task Force and is working to expand a tax credit for the use of CCS in enhanced oil recovery, he noted.
"A primary goal is to advance deployment of CCS," Roy said. "Speaking just for C2ES, we don't see how it's possible to meet our GHG reduction targets without deploying CCS for coal and eventually natural gas in the U.S. and around the world."
NRDC climate chief David Hawkins said that his group considers CCS to be "technically ready for use at coal plants."
He also said that coal's new challenges are not of EPA's making, but are economic. While coal companies say EPA is making a tough situation worse, Hawkins said coal is simply failing to compete with lower-cost natural gas.
"The idea that new high carbon-emitting coal plants would be attractive to investors if EPA rules were blocked is a fantasy," he said.
Sierra Club spokeswoman Kao added, "The writing was on the wall for the coal industry long before these standards were ever announced."
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