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Delaware pursues federal emissions goals despite court challenge to Clean Power Plan

Delaware Public Media

Delaware is pressing ahead with plans to comply with the federal government’s ambitious program to cut carbon emissions from power plants despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to put the plan on hold while a multi-state lawsuit against the regulation makes its way through the courts.

The Markell administration said on Feb. 15 that it will continue to look for ways of meeting the requirements of the Clean Power Plan even though the program is suspended for now.

As a first step, the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control will hold a listening session in Dover on March 1 to explain the state’s compliance plan and to seek public views on how to cut emissions.

Gov. Jack Markell said the decision to proceed with the compliance plan is consistent with Delaware’s membership of the nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and shows the state’s recognition of the need to combat climate change.

“As a RGGI state, Delaware has led the country in working to curtail greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector,” Gov. Markell said. “We will continue to do so regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision to stay the Clean Power Plan rule.

“As a coastal state, we are acutely aware of the serious threats of climate change and sea level rise, and the Clean Power Plan (CPP) represents a sensible and flexible approach for states to make the changes required to protect our economy and quality of life,” Markell said in a statement.

The CPP, announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in August 2015, tightened carbon-emission standards on existing power plants, saying they must be reduced by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

The regulation, a landmark in the Obama administration’s environmental policy, allows states to act individually or together to meet the emissions goal; to use renewables, energy efficiency, carbon capture and storage, or new nuclear power to help meet their targets, and to employ emissions-trading programs such as cap and trade, as well as demand-side energy-efficiency programs.

State plans are due to be submitted to EPA by September 2016 but that deadline can be extended for up to two years. Compliance is expected to start in 2022, and will be phased in until 2030.

Delaware officials have not said how they intend to comply with the CPP, should it become effective, but argue that the state is already well on the way to meeting the federal targets, thanks mostly to the state’s participation in RGGI.

DNREC Secretary David Small called RGGI a national model for driving down regional carbon emissions.

“Many of the states that got together and formed RGGI thought that it could be a national model for a carbon cap and trade market place,” Small said, in an interview. “The EPA looked to RGGI as a leader and as a way to achieve compliance.”

Small said it’s not yet clear whether RGGI states -- which work to reduce carbon emissions by selling allowances and investing the proceeds in clean-energy development -- will seek a coordinated approach to meeting the CPP goals, but he argued that participating states are already ahead of those outside the region in working toward the plan’s targets.

“RGGI states need to put together a model rule that would have some common elements but then are tailored to their own individual circumstances. Those conversations have begun,” he said.

While some states would require legislation to meet the carbon goals, Delaware could do so by amending some regulations, and so is likely to be able to meet the EPA’s September 2016 deadline for submitting a compliance plan, while some other RGGI states will probably need the two-year extension, Small said.

The state has cut carbon emissions by 5.1 percent from 10 generating units covered by RGGI since joining the initiative in 2009, Small said. That has been achieved by closing coal-fired power plants, switching some to natural gas, and installing emissions-control equipment on others.

But compared with data from 2005, before Delaware joined RGGI, power-plant emissions were 58 percent lower by 2015, DNREC said.

Officials said Delaware’s carbon cuts should be seen as part of the regional effort – whose emissions reduction, at 23.5 percent since 2009, is within reach of the CPP’s goal for the U.S. as a whole of 32 percent.

The only coal-fired unit still in operation in Delaware is at NRG Energy’s Indian River plant near Millsboro, and that unit is “fairly clean” following the installation of “additional technologies,” Small said. Three other coal-fired units at the plant were shut down.

Other Delaware plants that have switched to cleaner-burning natural gas include those run by NRG at Dover and Calpine at Edgemoor.

Despite Delaware’s vulnerability to climate change, it is unlikely to make big changes to carbon policies even if the CPP is implemented, Small said.

“We’re going to continue along the path that we’ve been on,” he said. “I don’t know that we have to make a lot of adjustments.”

Delaware and other RGGI states are ahead of many others in controlling carbon emissions, and have imposed tougher limits than those proposed by the CPP while maintaining economic growth and keeping the grid supplied with electricity across the mid-Atlantic states and New England, Small said.

The CPP applies to only five of the 10 generating units covered by RGGI, and sets an easier target for emissions than the regional program.

Asked whether a plan to meet the CPP goals – either alone or in cooperation with other RGGI states -- would result in higher electricity prices, Small said it would depend on the nature of future plans.

“RGGI is modeling what the price of power might be under different scenarios,” he said. “We don’t have all of that information yet and as that becomes available it will be shared with stakeholders. Early indications are that the price impacts would be minimal.”

Opponents of both the Clean Power Plan and Delaware’s membership of RGGI say that environmental regulations have increased costs for utilities and those have been passed on to customers.

“Delaware’s energy schemes over the past few years have been a tragedy for the citizens of Delaware, and the economy of Delaware,” said Rep. Rich Collins, R, Millsboro. “They have driven up the cost for no real benefit.”

Collins accused Gov. Markell of blocking regional natural gas development by opposing a plan to open up the Delaware River basin to drilling in 2011. Collins also said the administration has misspent public money in supporting clean-energy projects like Bloom Energy on the University of Delaware’s STAR campus and Fisker’s failed attempt to build an electric car factory in Wilmington.

“We put blocks in the way of abundant energy, we give ratepayer money to boondoggles and then say we’re doing good things,” Collins said. “It’s really hurting lower-income people.”

But data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show that Delaware’s average residential electricity rates are little changed since the state joined RGGI. The rate dropped marginally to 13.97 cents per kilowatt hour in 2014 from 14.07 cents in 2009, the data show.

Collins said Delaware should withdraw from RGGI, as New Jersey’s Republican Governor, Chris Christie, did in 2011, claiming the program taxed electricity consumption without any discernable benefit to the environment. New Jersey is also among the 27 states that have sued to block the CPP.

But in coal-rich Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has said he will continue to work on a CPP compliance plan despite the Supreme Court’s stay. Wolf’s environment secretary, John Quigley, held 14 “listening sessions” across the state last year to hear submissions from industry, the public, and advocacy groups on how that state should implement the plan.

In Delaware, State Senator Harris McDowell, a prominent advocate for clean-energy policies, said state should continue to cut emissions by improving energy efficiency, as well as by making further reductions in power-plant emissions where possible.

McDowell, D, Wilmington North, who chairs Delaware’s Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU), predicted the state will meet the emissions goals of the CPP if and when it is implemented, and said it should go beyond those limits.

“I don’t think we should rest on that,” he said.

McDowell, who also chairs the Senate Energy and Transit Committee, said the SEU could expand its efforts to cut the state’s carbon emissions by promoting the use of energy-efficiency measures and solar power to low-income communities. He noted that the use of renewable-energy sources like solar helps to reduce power-plant emissions by cutting demand for electricity from the fossil-fuel sources.

He dismissed criticism from CPP opponents that small states like Delaware can’t make a significant contribution to national cuts in carbon emissions. “Everybody has to do what they can,” he said.

And he predicted that RGGI will survive even if the CPP doesn’t. “There would be no reason to knock RGGI down because of that,” he said.

Delaware’s pursuit of clean-energy goals is backed by environmental groups like The Nature Conservancy, whose state director, Richie Jones, said the state is making progress on cutting emissions.

“Delaware is close to target” for the CPP, Jones said. “Not many states can say that.”

If the CPP is finally struck down by the courts, Delaware and other RGGI states will have to decide whether to continue with their emissions-reduction program in the absence of federal requirements, Small said.

Under that scenario, too, Delaware is likely to decide to press on with its carbon-reduction program because it recognizes how much it is exposed to rising seas, he said. According to state projections, the state could lose between 8 and 11 percent of its land mass to rising ocean waters by 2100.

“Delaware’s position at this point is likely to be ‘yes’ to that question,” Small said, when asked whether the state will pursue its carbon cuts even in the absence of a federal requirement. “We’ve got a lot to lose if we are not successful in mitigating the effects of climate change.”

DNREC’s March 1 listening session will be held from 6 - 8 p.m. in the DNREC Auditorium, 89 Kings Highway, Dover, DE 19901.

Jon has been reporting on environmental and other topics for Delaware Public Media since 2011. Stories range from sea-level rise and commercial composting to the rebuilding program at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and the University of Delaware’s aborted data center plan.
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