Witnesses from four federal agencies, including Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy, answered pointed questions about the president’s June 2013–released Climate Action Plan (CAP) and associated rules at an oversight hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works today. 

Committee Chair Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) began the hearing to review President Obama’s CAP by pledging to back federal climate change mitigation efforts because “it’s a moral obligation, it’s good for the economy, and it’s good for human health,” she said. But ranking member Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) hoped the “long-overdue” hearing would address the CAP—which he called “the biggest regulatory avalanche in human history”—its contentious impact on the economy, and to open a debate to whether or not climate science had been settled.

One of the key tenets of the CAP is to tackle carbon pollution from power plants, the single largest source in the U.S., McCarthy said, which is why the EPA re-proposed a March 2012 rule in September 2013 and established the first uniform national limits on carbon pollution from future power plants.

The New Source Pollution Standards (NSPS) proposal, recently published in the Federal Register, essentially sets separate national limits for new natural gas-fired turbines and new coal-fired units. New large natural gas-fired turbines would need to emit less than 1,000 pounds of CO2/MWh while new small natural gas-fired turbines would need to emit less than 1,100 pounds of CO2/MWh. New coal-fired units would need to emit less than 1,100 pounds of CO2/MWh.

“Operators of these units could choose to have additional flexibility by averaging their emissions over multiple years to meet a somewhat tighter limit,” McCarthy said. The rule would “set the stage” for continued public and private investment in efficient natural gas and carbon capture and storage, she said.

“For existing plants, we are engaged in outreach to a broad group of stakeholders who can inform the development of proposed guidelines, which we expect to issue in June of this year,” McCarthy added. The existing plant carbon rule would give states the primary role in developing and implementing plans to address carbon pollution, she said.

McCarthy affirmed that the agency was in litigation with various environmental groups that contend “they aren’t doing enough” to address carbon pollution. “The president made the most sensible decision to focus on power plants first because power plants represent 33% of the carbon emissions that are being emitted in the U.S,” she said.

Responding to a question from Sen. Vitter about why the agency based the NSPS proposed rule on three government-funded projects when the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPACT) prohibits the EPA from considering technology used at Energy Department–backed projects as being “adequately demonstrated” for purposes of Section 111 of the Clean Air Act, McCarthy said the EPA had, “as recently as this morning,” submitted a Notice of Data Availability to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) “so that the package is very clear about its intersect with EPACT.” The EPA’s interpretation of EPACT has been that the agency cannot “solely” rely on EPACT-funded facilities, and the EPA had been looking at evidence and “a larger, more robust data set,” well-beyond what’s associated with the EPACT-funded projects, she said.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) cited recent media reports that quoted a White House official as saying that carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology had not been “adequately demonstrated.” He asked McCarthy: “What does the White House know that you haven’t acknowledged, and is the agency going to speak more definitively on this topic?” McCarthy noted that the proposal had gone through intra-agency review, and that the OMB had cleared the proposal. “I am very confident that CCS has been proven to be technically feasible in the data provided,” she responded.

To Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who asked whether the EPA has adequately vetted the proposed rule for economic and unemployment impacts, McCarthy said the senator could be assured the agency had issued the rule having done the full extent of analysis that could be done.

Nancy Sutley, who heads the Council on Environmental Quality—which was formed to oversee the implementation of the administration’s broader environmental policy goals—told the hearing panel that renewables and energy efficiency efforts in the U.S. had been ramped up, including progress by the Department of Interior (DOI) to permit an additional 10 GW of renewables projects on public lands by 2020.

Former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter (D) who now leads the Center for the New Energy Economy put it into better perspective: “Today 220 million Americans live in a state with a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) and 240 million live in states with a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “States are leading the U.S. forward.”

Ritter also called for more collaboration between state energy policy makers, the finance community, and program implementers to further the advancement of renewables. “In the 2013 legislative session alone, there were over 650 bills introduced to enable financing (including tax credits) for advanced energy of which nearly 100 became law. States are trying to unlock financing for clean energy.” Yet “large capital markets such as Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) and Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) are closed to renewable energy,” he said. “As a result, renewable developers rely on tax equity markets, which are much more limited in scope and scale.”

Sonal Patel, associate editor (@POWERmagazine, @sonalcpatel)