Views clash at EPA hearings

PITTSBURGH – Competing visions for America’s energy future clashed in downtown Pittsburgh on Thursday as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s public hearings on proposed new limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants got under way.

EPA officials heard 11 hours of testimony from about 200 people from all walks of life, from private citizens to politicians and mothers to college professors, who each were given five minutes to express their views on the agency’s first-ever plan to set national carbon dioxide emissions standards on existing power plants. The hearing took place at the William S. Moorhead Federal Building on Liberty Avenue.

Emotions ran high during a midday break in the testimony as thousands of United Mine Workers of America members and supporters marched through the streets to protest the regulations, which they say threaten their livelihoods for relatively minimal benefit to the environment. Opposing them was a throng almost as large with signs calling for “Climate Action Now” and “Clean Water, Healthy Air,” who believe the government can’t afford not to take action on climate change.

As the miners filed through the intersection of Liberty Avenue and 10th Street, their chants of “Burn our coal!” and “UMWA!” mixed with those of “EPA, do your job!” from the pro-regulation crowd to create a loud din that attracted much attention as it washed through the downtown area.

The proceedings inside the Federal Building were significantly more subdued, but the discord among the opinions expressed was just as evident. The proposed rules, announced by the EPA in June, aim to cut the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions from power plants 30 percent by 2030 by setting state-specific standards and requiring each state to develop a plan by 2018 at the latest to meet its standard.

Among those speaking Thursday morning was West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, who is the Democrat nominee this year for the U.S. Senate seat held by retiring U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. She said the EPA has slapped the faces of miners who “have literally given their backs, their knees and their shoulders to power America.”

“These numbers are people – people with mortgages to pay and families to feed,” Tennant said.

Like her opponent in this year’s U.S. Senate race, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-Charleston, did Tuesday during a public hearing in Washington, D.C., Tennant chastised EPA officials for failing to hold listening sessions in the Mountain State.

“The White House has chosen to snub West Virginia, but West Virginians will not be ignored. … There is no reason to pit clean air against good-paying jobs. West Virginia can lead the way in clean coal technology,” she said.

Jennifer Garrison, who is the Democrat challenger to Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, in November’s election, also testified in opposition to the proposed regulations. She said coal is an affordable energy source that provides high-paying jobs and reliability for the electric grid.

“The proposed regulations are unrealistic and therefore unfair to impose on Americans,” Garrison said.

The EPA also heard from many speakers who applaud the proposed rules, though a number of them said the action is overdue and doesn’t go far enough.

“We are facing the definitive challenge of our time,” said Carnegie Mellon University professor Patricia DeMarco regarding climate change. “We must make better choices that lead to a sustainable economy and a sustainable energy system.”

Many environmentalists, including several members of the Sierra Club, urged the EPA to strengthen the rule to prioritize energy sources such as wind or solar power rather than converting coal-fired generating capacity to natural gas, noting methane is more potent than carbon-dioxide as a heat-trapping gas.

“If the goal is to combat climate change, then the expected increase in methane must be fully accounted for,” said Peter Wray of the Sierra Club’s Allegheny Group.

Iowa farmer Matt Russell said he relies on science to grow his crops, and he trusts the climate scientists when they warn of the dire consequences of humans’ carbon footprint. He said more than 800,000 acres of farmland in Iowa went unplanted this year due to wild weather swings.

“The climate is critical for farmers to be able to feed 7 billion people on this earth. … Climate change is real. It’s happening, and it’s going to get worse,” Russell said.

Speaker after speaker touted the rule’s wide latitude for states in developing plans, but Vincent Brisini, deputy secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said the notion of flexibility for states under the mandate is “illusory.” He said the EPA should have limited its rulemaking to requiring specific actions of power plants rather than setting a blanket goal he believes will have wider-reaching implications.

“Pennsylvania believes those types of social and economic decisions should be made by elected officials,” Brisini said.

Day two of the EPA’s Pittsburgh hearings – the last in a series of four this week, with others held in Atlanta, Denver, and Washington, D.C. – will begin at 9 a.m. The slate of almost 200 scheduled speakers includes Belmont County Commissioner Matt Coffland and Murray Energy Vice President Michael Carey.

Although the public hearings will be concluded, the EPA will continue accepting written comments on the proposed rules through Oct. 16.