The U.S. Supreme Court hobbled the federal government’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants with a decision released Thursday.
The ruling, in a 6-3 vote with conservatives in the majority, says the Clean Air Act does not give the Environmental Protection Agency wide-ranging power to curb emissions that contribute to global warming.
Knox News answers key questions about how the decision will play out in East Tennessee.
What does the Clean Air Act regulate?
Under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency regulates a number of emissions from sources like power plants. Over time, the EPA planned to increase these limits or expand its regulations so stricter standards would yield cleaner air over time.
There are a number of different programs and rules created under the Clean Air Act to target specific dangerous emissions.
The Clean Power Plan was proposed under the Obama administration and was created as a path for the EPA to more strictly regulate greenhouse emissions, specifically carbon dioxide from power plants.
The rule would have required states to create a plan that would look at the sources of carbon dioxide and figure out how to reduce those emissions. States would have been required to reduce emissions from power plants.
The rule specifically sought to reduce emissions from coal-fired and natural gas plants.
With the Supreme Court’s decision, the states are no longer required to create or implement any plan that was specific to the Clean Power Plan.
How many East Tennessee plants are affected?
The Tennessee Valley Authority, the primary electricity supplier in the region, operates three power plants in East Tennessee that would have been governed by the Clean Power Plan.
The Bull Run plant does not run every day and is set to shut down in 2023.
TVA is reviewing its options for shutting down the Kingston plant, and those could include switching to natural gas as a fuel source.
There are other power plants that are not operated by TVA that also would have been affected under the required statewide plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
These are plants such as the one operated in Kingsport by Eastman Chemical Company, which generates power for its operations from both coal-fired boilers and natural gas.
The Clean Power Plan could have also regulated the University of Tennessee’s power operations, which use both coal and natural gas as well.
Does this mean plants will start emitting more greenhouse gases?
Not necessarily. Under multiple Clean Air Act programs, plants have reduced their emissions by installing the latest technology, such as scrubbers, in coal-fired plants.
These installations will not necessarily go away especially since the Clean Power Plan was primarily focused on carbon dioxide emissions, not other emissions that power plants are required to reduce, such as sulfur dioxide and nitrous dioxide, which create haze and acid rain, but are not greenhouse gases.
But this does mean that these plants would not be required by the EPA to install technology or find ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions specifically, such as carbon capture.
In March, TVA announced it would be partnering with Oak Ridge National Labs to invest in decarbonization technology.
How do I know what kind of dangerous elements are released from plants near where I live?
The EPA has a database called Echo that can be accessed at echo.epa.gov. You can either search Echo via the map or search for a specific facility.
ProPublica also has created a database that allows you to search what it describes as the “most detailed map of cancer-causing industrial air pollution in the the U.S.” It can be found at projects.propublica.org/toxmap.
What TVA is saying about the climate change ruling
TVA released a lengthy statement to Knox News about the ruling.
Here it is:
“We are reviewing today’s decision and expect it will have minimal, if any, impact on TVA and our operations. Our decarbonization efforts are not directly connected to the Clean Power Plan.
“To put more color around our efforts – a year ago, TVA issued a Strategic Intent and Guiding Principles document that reinforces our commitments and sets realistic and clear targets. The document codifies the work we have been doing for many years.
“We believe decarbonization is the future. TVA is leading efforts to move the industry and nation faster and farther, together. It will take a lot of work to research, develop and deploy technologies that, frankly, we don’t have today at a competitive price.
“However, TVA’s public power model is uniquely positioned to move forward with our decarbonization plans in our Strategic Intent and Guiding Principles. We are taking a holistic balanced approach that focuses on providing the most cost-effective, reliable, clean electricity to power our region. Our carbon emissions reduction goal from 2005 levels remain the same – 70% by 2030, ~80% by 2035 and aspire to be net-zero by 2050. We’ve already reduced carbon emissions by 60 percent.
“Last year, 56% of TVA’s energy was carbon-free. Plus, we launched the Fast Charge Network program to expand charging infrastructure and increase electric vehicle adoption and partnered with Kairos Power to deploy a low-power demonstration advanced nuclear reactor at Oak Ridge, TN.
“While we’ve made progress, there is still a lot of work to do as outlined in our recent Sustainability Report.
“In terms of renewable energy, we announced an aggressive goal of adding 10 gigawatts of solar by 2035. We see solar and renewable energy as much more than an environmental win. It is truly an economic win that benefits all segments of society. Since 2018, our Green Invest solar program has generated about $3 billion in economic activity and over 2,100 megawatts of solar. The City of Knoxville is now #1 in the Southeast for solar procurement (502MW). In April, Envision announced a new battery factory in Warren County, Ky. Because of TVA’s renewable energy capabilities, 2,000 families will soon have good-paying jobs and Envision is investing $2 billion in a factory in Warren County.
What the SELC is saying about the climate change ruling
The Southern Environmental Law Center released a statement Thursday from Frank Rambo, senior attorney and leader of the the organization’s clean energy and air program.
“By hobbling the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate carbon emissions, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling today has gravely hamstrung the United States’ progress to taking swift and necessary action to address climate change. We have only a brief window of opportunity to cut emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants, one of the country’s largest sources of greenhouse gases, yet today’s decision torpedoes the EPA’s authority to meaningfully do so.
“Of all regions of the country, the South has the most to lose from unchecked climate change, and the most to gain from an economy that relies on clean energy. The Court’s ruling in favor of coal companies in a case about an environmental safeguard that no longer exists—indeed, one that never took effect—dismisses legal precedent, and ignores the climate crisis that is already hurting families and communities in the South.
“Our environment is only as clean as the regulations that protect it. Today’s decision is devastating for the South and for the country, and should heighten the urgency for localities, states, and for us all to do what we can to take action and seek climate solutions.”