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Andrew Wetzler’s Blog

Unintended Consequences

Andrew Wetzler

Posted December 27, 2008 in Saving Wildlife and Wild Places, Solving Global Warming, U.S. Law and Policy

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coal-fired power plant

When the Bush Administration decided that it absolutely positively was not going to use the Endangered Species Act to address global warming--and it damned sure wasn't going to let anyone else use it that way--someone in the bowels of the Administration came up with a clever idea.  Let's have the Environmental Protection Agency model the effect of a single power plant on climate change.  Since the contribution of any particular power plant on global climate change is bound to be small, we can use the results to argue that no single source of global warming pollution can be said to "cause" adverse effects on listed species and, viola!, that the Endangered Species Act doesn't apply to global warming. 

And that's exactly what they did.  In regulations finalized just two weeks ago, the Administration revealed that it had commissioned EPA to model the effect of a large coal-fired power plant on global temperatures.  Based on these results, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that:

In the context of greenhouse gases, current models, though capable of quantifying the contribution to changes in global atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and temperature, do not allow us to quantitatively link an individual action to localized climate impacts relevant to consultation.  However, based on the best scientific information available, we are presently able to conclude that the impacts of a particular source are likely to be extremely small. For example, in a recent exchange of letters, EPA provided a model-based analysis that projected that even the emissions of a very large coal-fired power plant would likely result in a rise in the maximum global mean temperature of less than one thousandth of a degree.

More precisely, EPA concluded that the construction an operation of a very large conventional coal plant would raise the temperature of the Arctic by 0.00065 to 0.00113 degrees.  Now, whether or not this is an impact "relevant to consultation," either by itself or when added to other sources of global warming pollution, under the Endangered Species Act is a question that will most likely be settled by the courts.

But, as the Clean Air Report (subscription required) noted on Thursday:

However, despite the agency's intent to have the modeling discourage climate reviews for individual facilities under the ESA, EPA Region IX is citing the same model in its Nov. 24 comments on an environmental impact statement (EIS) for a proposed coal-fired power plant in Nevada to urge the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to consider a wide range of voluntary climate controls at the plant.

That is, what the Bush Administrations clever maneuver has succeeded in doing is showing: (1) that global warming models are, in fact, sensitive enough to quantify the impact of large greenhouse gas sources on the climate of particular regions and (2) that regardless of the implications under the Endangered Species Act, small, cumulative, and quantifiable effects like these may well trigger regulatory requirements under other laws, most notably the National Environmental Policy Act (which has very strict requirements about taking into account "cumulative impacts" when preparing environmental impacts statements) and the Clean Air Act.  

I guess we'll have to file this away under "be careful what you wish for."

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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