A top House Republican said yesterday that federal energy regulators aren't meeting their responsibilities for protecting the country's electric grid in light of potential threats posed by U.S. EPA's new air pollution rules.
Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) said the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has acquiesced to EPA when it comes to the agency's new mercury and air toxics standards for coal- and oil-burning power plants.
"The reality is FERC has been bending over backwards to allow EPA to determine whether or not reliability is really an issue here," Whitfield said in briefing with reporters. "In some ways, the chairman over there and the commissioners have abdicated their responsibility for reliability."
Reliability concerns have been a frequent criticism of EPA's new rule, which will cut mercury emissions by approximately 90 percent and make significant reductions to acid gases and other volatile organic compounds. Critics argue that as power companies take plants offline to make pollution control upgrades, or retire plants altogether, electric reliability could be put at risk.
EPA has steadfastly said that the rules won't threaten electricity. At a hearing of Whitfield's Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power yesterday, EPA air chief Gina McCarthy emphasized that the agency built flexibility into the rule in part to protect reliability. In addition to the standard three-year deadline for Clean Air Act rules, EPA made a fourth year widely available, she said. Further, the agency provided a fifth year option for which a power company may apply if it believes electric reliability will be threatened.
"For 40 years, we have been able to implement the Clean Air Act, grow the American economy and keep the lights on," McCarthy testified. The air toxics rule "will not change that" (E&E Daily, Feb. 8).
Still, Whitfield said that FERC is giving EPA too much authority over determining what poses a threat to the grid and what does not.
"There's no question that EPA is the driving force in this administration," Whitfield said. "I don't think I'm being unrealistic in saying that a lot of the agencies seem to cater to EPA."
A FERC spokeswoman declined to comment.
Whitfield is not the only Republican arguing that FERC is giving EPA too much leeway. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said this week that a draft staff white paper from FERC, released in January, shows the EPA does not have to listen to FERC or other reliability experts.
The draft staff white paper, which is now up for public comment, proposed that FERC would advise EPA when a power company applies for the fifth year of compliance time. Ultimately, though, EPA would decide whether to grant the extension.
"The paper acknowledges that EPA is the key decisionmaker here and that EPA has no obligation to take advice from FERC or electric reliability professionals," Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon said. "That is regrettable" (E&E Daily, Feb. 8).
Murkowski is drafting legislation to address the issue by adding a "safety valve" to the "Federal Power Act" in order to protect reliability.
But Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a supporter of the new toxics rule, said the reliability concern is another red herring similar to the one industry has used to say the rules will cost too much during a recession.
"This would appear at first blush to be a new attempt with a different focus," Carper said. "We'll take a look. But my guess is that it's like what we heard on the previous issue."