By Mary Orndorff Troyan, Gannett Washington DC
In a new dispute between environmental regulators and business over limiting greenhouse gas emissions, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson has firmly chosen to side with industry.
"When the federal government regulates its citizens and rules its citizens with unelected bureaucrats, and legislates by administrative fiat, it burdens families and businesses," Wilson said.
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case next year challenging the Environmental Protection Agency's plans to further crack down on global-warming emissions from power plants and other manufacturing facilities.
Industry advocates, backed by South Carolina and 11 other states, say the EPA is on a power grab, taking permitting rules originally meant for cars and trucks and improperly expanding them to buildings.
"They make it unbearable for business to grow their facilities because of the onerous regulations imposed by the EPA," Wilson said. "Energy prices go up, and the costs are borne by consumers. It's a consumer protection and a pro-business position I'm taking."
Last year in South Carolina, more than 43 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases were emitted by 112 facilities, according to data collected by the EPA.
Most of it came from coal-fired power plants. Greenhouse gases from man-made sources increase temperatures, trigger intense weather events and worsen ground-level ozone, according to the EPA.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the EPA has authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases if it finds they endanger public health and welfare. The agency used that authority three years ago to issue limits on emissions from cars and trucks.
The Supreme Court justices this month declined to hear a challenge to the rule for cars and trucks. That prompted environmental and public health groups to declare it settled law that greenhouse gas emissions are a pollutant and the government can force limits on them.
However, the Supreme Court justices said on Oct. 15 they want to tackle the more narrow question of whether the permitting process under the Clean Air Act can be applied to stationary sources.
Business: Economy at stake
Industry says the health of the global economy is at stake.
"These regulations will be felt not only by the nation's energy providers and manufacturers, but they also threaten to impose new stringent permitting requirements for millions of stationary sources, which will impact every aspect of our economy," said National Association of Manufacturers President and CEO Jay Timmons.
After concerns the rule would affect every apartment building and hotel in the country, regulators said the stricter permitting would apply only to large facilities that emit at least 100,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases each year. In South Carolina last year, fewer than half of the 112 large facilities that emit greenhouse gases exceeded that level, according to EPA data.
Wilson said narrowing the list of facilities affected by the permitting doesn't make it reasonable.
"Government is like a rubber band, and if they feel the band is about to break, they let up," Wilson said. "They concede temporarily, and two years from now they will up that standard."
Environmental groups say the case isn't as sweeping as Wilson and industry groups claim. The justices didn't accept a challenge to EPA's national standards on greenhouse gas emissions, only a relatively new and separate permitting program for industrial facilities with significant emissions.
Arguing that such permitting will decimate business is "political grandstanding," said John Walke, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Counsel. "There is an ideological hostility to reducing greenhouse gas pollution, and they are throwing every salvo against EPA regulations that they can."
If the justices rule against the EPA and environmental groups on the permitting issue, the national industry standards on such emissions would still apply to power plants, Walke said.
Emissions are reported publicly and facilities that exceed the standard face fines. The industry can meet the standards with some flexibility, such as improving the energy efficiency of its customers.
"We and the EPA prefer standard-setting because the program offers the opportunity for far greater pollution reductions and second, much more flexibility for covered industries due to the ability to pursue more cost-effective reductions from beyond the fence line of the plant," Walke said.
Wilson denied he was taking a scorched-Earth strategy to do away with all EPA regulatory power over industry. He said he involved South Carolina in the case because he wants to curb the power of the federal government, not to question the science of what causes global warming.
"I'm an Eagle Scout and I love the environment and I want the agency to protect it," Wilson said. "I'm not saying no regulation, but (I support) a balance of those regulations between the environment and the interests of business and economic development."