South Carolina’s decision to join a lawsuit challenging proposed climate change regulations sparked criticism Tuesday from environmental groups that say legal action isn’t necessary.
A dozen states, mostly in the South and Midwest, are suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in an attempt to stop rules that some major power companies say will drive up their costs – and utility rates.
But environmental groups said the lawsuit, filed in the past week, isn’t worth the effort – and one leading environmentalist lambasted state leaders for what she said is fight against science.
“You have people in political office who don’t believe in climate change,’’ the Sierra Club’s Susan Corbett said. “They base their decisions to sue on the false notion that greenhouse gases don’t cause climate change. You have a lot of climate change deniers out there.’’
Corbett said she finds it “ironic that people who are so concerned about taxpayer spending are always willing to engage in these kinds of frivolous lawsuits at taxpayer expense.’’
The Conservation Voters of South Carolina and the S.C. Coastal Conservation League also oppose Attorney General Alan Wilson’s efforts, particularly because the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is already working to help the state comply with the rules. DHEC has put together a panel of various interest groups to discuss the new rules.
“Conservation Voters does not think litigation is necessary,’’ said Alan Hancock, a former DHEC air regulator who works with the organization. “We are pleased that, while litigation is going on, we are planning for the EPA power plant protections.’’
Hamilton Davis, who oversees energy issues for the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said courts have ruled that the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases.
“I don’t think that the lawsuit is the solution to addressing how South Carolina deals with its carbon emissions and complies with federal rules to get us there,’’ Davis said. He said South Carolina is “going to have to get our ducks in a row when it comes to dealing wtih carbon emissions.’’
In addition to South Carolina, states that filed suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia are Alabama, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming.
Wilson said this week that it only makes sense for South Carolina to fight the carbon dioxide rules because the EPA is “overstepping its legal boundaries’’ and “regulating through administrative fiat.’’
“This regulatory action by the EPA is bad all the way around,” Wilson said. “It’s bad because federal bureaucrats can’t be allowed to make up the rules as they go along. It’s bad because the new restrictions would mean higher electric bills for South Carolina’s families and small businesses. And it’s bad when runaway red tape in Washington short-circuits the constitutional process.’’
EPA administrator Gina McCarthy has said that industry often complains of rising costs to comply with pollution rules, but later figures a way to do so affordably.
The rules are not final and the EPA is gathering comments before making a final decision on the carbon restrictions. Hearings were held recently around the country.
South Carolina depends heavily on coal plants, a major source of carbon dioxide pollution. But the percentage of coal-generated power is dropping as utilities close outdated facilities. At one time, the state produced coal generated electricity from about a dozen places in South Carolina, but utilities have closed or are closing about a half dozen of the oldest power plants at those sites.
The EPA’s regulations, announced in early June, called for a 51 percent cut in the rate at which power plants release carbon dioxide in South Carolina. Nationally, the government is proposing a 30 percent reduction in carbon dioxide pollution from power plants during the next 20 years. The plan is to cut the greenhouse gas to levels below the amount released in 2005 in an effort to fight climate change.
Santee Cooper, the state owned power company, also has been critical of the rules, saying they don’t give South Carolina enough credit for efforts to curb greenhouse gases from power plants. The utility has raised the possibility that the regulations could affect power rates.
Conservationists say the rules should not be as difficult to comply with as they are made out to be. They say the state is likely to get credit for its past efforts to control carbon dioxide from power plants.
The lawsuit, filed late last week, follows a lawsuit brought six weeks ago by the country's largest privately held coal mining company, Murray Energy Corp.
The states filed their case Friday, the same day the EPA held public hearings in several cities. Thousands of coal miners turned out in Pittsburgh to protest the Obama administration plan, which they said would kill jobs and lead to higher electricity costs for consumers.
The two lawsuits are the first salvos in what is likely to be a protracted legal battle as the coal industry and its political allies seek weak spots in the EPA's interpretation of an untested section of the Clean Air Act, on which the proposed rule change is based.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said the EPA's proposed rule will have “devastating effects on West Virginia's jobs and its economy” by forcing some coal-fired plants to close.
But the EPA defended the rules.
“The Clean Power Plan proposal provides each state with enormous flexibility in determining how to meet its pollution reduction goals, and does not mandate the retirement of any coal plants,” said Liz Purchia, an EPA spokeswoman.
The EPA is expected to ask the court to dismiss the suit, said Thomas A. Lorenzen, an environmental lawyer in Washington, D.C.
The Los Angeles Times and the Greenville News contributed to this story