Idaho utilities and environmental activists are preparing for the release of a new EPA rule aiming to regulate power plants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Those emissions already are contributing to earlier spring runoffs, larger wildfires and smaller snowpacks in Idaho.
The Obama administration is scheduled to release the 3,000-page rule Monday to tackle the source of up to 40 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted in the U.S. Just as certain are the lawsuits from industry and attacks from congressional Republicans who say the administration is overreaching.
“This is the biggest environmental rule to come out of the EPA in a generation,” Ken Miller said.
Miller is energy program director for the Snake River Alliance, an Idaho watchdog group that advocates energy efficiency and alternative power sources.
For Idaho Power and its customers, the rule could affect how long the utility operates coal fire plants in Nevada, Oregon and Wyoming in partnership with other utilities. Idaho has no coal plants within its borders, but in 2013 coal accounted for 39 percent of Idaho Power’s electric generation.
The company already announced it’s on a “glide path” away from coal. Its Boardman, Ore., plant is scheduled to close and its partner at the North Valmy plant in Nevada has said it plans to phase out coal plants.
But the Bridger coal plant in Wyoming — the largest regional emitter of carbon dioxide — is expected to operate through 2030. How the Environmental Protection Agency writes the rule could affect that timetable.
“Idaho Power complies with all existing federal, state and local environmental regulations that apply to our generation facilities, and we are committed to remaining in compliance with any new standards,” company spokeswoman Lynette Berriochoa said.
Writing the rules
The rule will require each state to write its own implementation plan, but is expected to allow for agreements between states since some regions already have those in place.
EPA is expected to call for a 20 percent reduction of emissions by 2020, the level scientists believe will steer a path toward climate stabilization.
But how those reductions are allocated will determine how much Idaho ratepayers pay. If EPA assigns responsibility to the coal plants, then Wyoming and Nevada will have a larger obligation to reduce carbon emissions, and Idaho a smaller one. If it uses as its guide where the coal energy is consumed, however, then the other states’ obligation will be smaller and Idaho’s larger.
If, as expected, EPA addresses emissions broadly and allows states to track carbon reductions beyond coal plants — and take credit for reducing their carbon footprint with energy efficiency and renewables — Idaho will have the best chance to keep money invested in clean energy (energy efficiency, solar, wind and geothermal power) within the state.
“We can redirect our coal dollars to these local clean resources,” said Ben Otto, an energy attorney for the Idaho Conservation League.
Hydropower and other unknowns
Some of the other unknowns are what EPA will set as the baseline year and how fast it will require the reductions, Otto said.
“If the baseline is 1990, then Idaho’s existing wind power is not in the mix and our carbon footprint and responsibility to reduce emissions is higher,” he said. “If the baseline is 2005 or later, then our footprint is smaller.”
“We really hope they take a regional approach” and the state can get credit for its investments in efficiency and renewables, said Miller of the Snake River Alliance.
How the rule addresses Idaho Power’s hydroelectric resource also is important, Otto said.
Climate change already is creating lower river flows. The question is how the rule will treat credits for that existing clean energy source, how it will take high and low water years into consideration and how those calculations will affect Idaho’s carbon footprint.
Idaho Power is prepared to meet the standard, Berriochoa said. But it would prefer to continue to reduce its carbon emissions voluntarily, as it has 10 to 15 percent since 2005.
“We believe moving away from coal through careful planning … is a more responsible approach for our customers and our operations than a federally mandated one,” she said.