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Curbing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions – Good for the Environment, Bad for Investors?

On June 2, 2014, EPA issued a proposed rule to control greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from the electric power generation sector of the United States. EPA’s goal is to obtain a reduction of GHG emissions in 2030 from this sector of 30% from the baseline year 2005. The 2005 baseline allows EPA to take credit for GHG emission reductions that have occurred since that time without any regulatory obligation. The proposal establishes GHG emission targets for each State (expect the District of Columbia and Vermont who do not have goals under the rule). Interim emission targets must be obtained in the 2020-2029 timeframe with final targets obtained by 2030.

The proposal does not suggest any particular emission limit on particular plants, but imposes the obligation on the States to derive a plan to achieve the reductions. The only penalty for noncompliance in the proposal is that EPA would impose an EPA-developed plan within the State if it fails to submit an approvable plan. While EPA has not dictated any particular approach a State may employ, the proposal favors a cap and trade or carbon tax system as the primary manner to obtain GHG emissions reductions.

So here are the two burning questions from the perspective of investors. First, will this rule actually survive in anywhere near this form?  Second, when will affected power projects need to start ramping up investment in order to comply with the rule, i.e., when should investors start to worry about financial capacity?

In terms of a “review for reality,” many industry experts suggest that it is nearly impossible to obtain the proposed 6% efficiency improvement at existing coal-fired power plants without major capital improvements, which could require complex Clean Air Act permitting under other provisions of the law. Other goals can only be achieved through substantial purchases of carbon credits (i.e., offsets) or the implementation of technologies that haven’t yet been proven to be commercially viable. (You’ve likely heard the aspirations to develop carbon capture and sequestration.) EPA also assumes that natural gas-fired power plants will be running at 70% capacity year-round, which may be difficult to achieve in practice. Finally, EPA assumes that energy efficiency improvements at the consumer level will be obtained at a rate of 1.5% every year until 2030 – an ambitious goal.

In terms of a “review for timing,” this is only the beginning of a very long process. After the usual rounds of public comment, EPA has targeted issuance of the final rule by June 1, 2015. Then the lawsuits will start. Then a new President with his/her own views will take office. Plus, even under the EPA’s own best case scenario, the proposed rule allows states until June 2016 to submit plans, with the potential for extension to June 2017. Once a state submits a plan, EPA must approve or disapprove it through notice and comment rulemaking. The proposal allows for EPA to complete the review of the plans within 12 months of the state plan submittal. If a state doesn’t submit a plan or EPA disapproves the plan, EPA must make a plan for the state. State plans must begin to meet an interim goal in 2020 and must achieve their final goal by 2030. Plus, State plans and EPA approval/disapproval present a separate source of litigation and associated delay.

So no need for panic dumping of carbon-intensive investments just yet, but keeping an eye on the process would be wise, including consideration of whether, if your industry investments are large enough, you should participate in, or form/join a group to participate in, the comment-making phase plus working with members of Congress. The earlier the involvement, the greater the opportunity to help shape the results.

© 2020 Bracewell LLP


About this Author

Jeffrey R. Holmstead, Bracewell Law Firm, Environmental Law Attorney

Jeff Holmstead, former Assistant Administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for Air and Radiation, is one of the nation's leading climate change lawyers as recognized by Chambers USA and heads the Environmental Strategies Group (ESG) at Bracewell. The ESG is a multi-disciplinary group that includes environmental and energy attorneys, public policy advocates, and strategic communications experts – most of whom have had high-level government experience.  Under Mr. Holmstead's leadership, they work together on daily basis to advise and defend...

Jason Hutt, Environmental Attorney, Bracewell law firm

Jason Hutt, head of the firm’s Environmental and Natural Resources practice, advises energy companies, manufacturers, project developers, investor groups and financial institutions about environmental risks and liabilities associated with incident response, regulatory compliance, project development, congressional and internal investigations and corporate transactions. He also assists in the defense of administrative, civil and criminal proceedings involving environmental enforcement agencies at the federal and state levels. Jason counsels clients on current and upcoming...