FERC testifies on EPA carbon regulations and electric reliability

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's proposed Clean Power Plan rule is projected to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, improve human health and save money -- but will it jeopardize the reliability of the nation's electricity grid?

Poorly implemented carbon regulations could increase the risk of widespread power outages, but this risk can be managed, according to testimony offered by the Commissioners of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Energy & Power earlier this week.

In her written testimony, Acting Chairman Cheryl LaFleur acknowledged concerns that EPA's carbon rule may have an "adverse impact on the overall reliability of the bulk power system."  Noting that EPA's plan leaves much of the implementation to individual states, she suggested that the FERC work closely with states to consider how state implementation plans will affect the operation of the grid. 

Commissioner Philip Moeller's testimony was more critical of EPA's proposed rule, which he described as infringing upon the FERC's jurisdiction over electric system reliability.  Noting that electricity markets are interstate in nature, Commissioner Moeller warned that "the proposal’s state-by-state approach results in an enforcement regime that would be awkward at best, and potentially very inefficient and expensive."  He also expressed skepticism at the plan's inclusion of increased use of existing natural gas-fired generation as one "building block" states may use to reduce their power sector's carbon intensity.  Commissioner Moeller also pointed to EPA's Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule as giving him reliability concerns.  On the positive side, he urged state regulators to speed adoption of real-time pricing at the retail level, so consumers can feel price signals that could reduce the overall cost of energy.  Commissioner Moeller concluded with a plea that FERC be given a formal role in EPA's regulation of the electric power sector.

Commissioner John Norris testified that EPA's proposed rule is "an important first step that addresses climate change by appropriately seeking to reduce carbon emitted by our nation’s electric power system."  While he acknowledges that transitioning to a low-carbon economy is challenging, he expressed confidence that "we as a nation should be well positioned to meet those challenges."  Commissioner Norris cited the MATS standards as an example of our readiness: while EPA's MATS rule led to the retirement of many older, inefficient coal-fired power plants, the grid has generally responded in a way that will maintain reliability.  Commissioner Norris urged cooperation with electric reliability organization North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) and states, and to be flexible in making market rule changes to enable states, regional transmission organizations and other system planners to meet resource adequacy requirements.

Commissioner Tony Clark testified that while the grid is more reliable than before, it remains vulnerable to cyberattack, physical security threats, and geomagnetic disturbances.  He also described environmental regulations as another source of risk, and warned of the "seismic" shift in EPA authority over the energy sector embodied in the rule.  Commissioner Clark described the Clean Power Plan as the most comprehensive reordering he has seen of the jurisdictional relationship between the federal government and states as it relates to the regulation of public utilities and energy development.  He painted a picture of states forced to choose between surrendering their authority over power plants willingly or losing it to federal supremacy.

Current FERC enforcement director Norman Bay also testified, noting that he was confirmed by the Senate as a Commissioner on July 15, but that he has not yet been sworn in.  His brief testimony focused on the need for cooperation between FERC, EPA, NERC, states, and regional transmission organizations to ensure reliability.

What happens next remains to be seen.  As expressed in the opening statements of Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, many remain concerned about what they perceive as an effort by EPA to assert control and new regulatory authorities over states’ electricity decision-making.  Will EPA's Clean Power Plan ultimately come into effect -- and if so, what path will it take?

Topics:  Carbon Emissions, Environmental Policies, EPA, FERC, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, MATS, Power Plants

Published In: Energy & Utilities Updates, Environmental Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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