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February 03, 2011

Can You Hear Me Now? Hanging Out with the EPA

Stop Polluters Two public hearings from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C., this week, will help decide whether our efforts to stop runaway climate change will rest on a strong foundation.

First up, EPA will be hearing from the public on how it should measure and report greenhouse gas pollution. Second,the agency will hear from utilities - in the first of several nationwide listening sessions - about how it should control the huge amounts of that pollution wafting from power sector smokestacks. 

The Sierra Club and its allies will be at both hearings to make a basic point: It's our environment and our health. We need to know who's polluting our air and then we need to hold them accountable.

The first hearing, on Thursday (today) is on EPA's greenhouse gas reporting system. It's an impressive program, which, in response to Congress's directive, requires several thousand of the biggest polluters to annually report their greenhouse gas emissions to EPA, beginning this spring.


The database the program will create is the key to protecting the climate: It provides the roadmap EPA will need to develop targeted, smart rules to stop dirty facilities from spewing carbon pollution. If we can't track greenhouse gases back to the source, we can't control them.

That's why all greenhouse gas emission data needs to be public - which is what the law requires. That includes the nitty-gritty information polluters use to calculate and report their emissions - critical data points quantifying things like fuel use and type - that EPA uses to verify that the figures are accurate and that scientists, advocates, and the public need to figure out how to clean up the system. Unfortunately, though, some big polluters are raising last-minute objections; they want to keep how they calculated their emissions a secret.

These last-minute industry objectors say that opening up about their pollution could cause competitive harm - but they can't quite say how. As EPA explained, many utilities offered "general statements," but couldn't identify "specific data elements" that they had problems with - in other words, they were blowing hot air, in more ways than one. 

All the same, they've got EPA spooked: the agency is proposing to put off collecting thousands of these important pollution information data points until 2014 - three years away. That would be a bad move: we can't wait that long to have reliable data on America's biggest carbon polluters. In fact, Congress told EPA to have the system up and running by 2009 - so it's already overdue.

We think EPA can do better, and that most all of the industry worries are just that - unsubstantiated anxiety. At Thursday's hearing, we'll be building the case that the public has a right to know what's pouring out of smokestacks and that the right business decision is to come clean, and clean up.

Stop Polluters Now Which brings us to the second big hearing of the week. On Friday, EPA is going to be holding the first of five listening sessions on greenhouse gas new source performance standards for the utility and refinery sectors - the sorts of firm controls the reporting system is designed to support. (And we'll be live-tweeting the session here on Compass).

New source performance standards set a strong, industry-wide baseline to control dangerous pollutants from all big new sources of pollution - and are designed to reach back to bring existing plants up to par over time. These firm safeguards work to ratchet up protections for the public, and the atmosphere, by setting a new bar for polluting industries to meet.

EPA had gotten behind on controlling carbon pollution from the two biggest sources - utilities and refineries - but savvy work by a coalition of states, the Sierra Club, and its environmental allies led to settlement agreements that put the agency on a timeline to get the job done (PDF)

Now we need to make sure that the standards are as protective as possible, requiring that new facilities be built using top-of-the-line technology and that old clunkers either clean up their acts or make way for less polluting alternatives. As EPA listens to the public, starting Friday, we'll be speaking loud and clear for health and a safe climate.

By the end of the week, we're hoping to have shored up the foundations of our efforts to protect the planet by keeping carbon pollution out of the shadows and under control.

-- Co-written by Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign, and Craig Segall, Attorney for the Sierra Club Environmental Law Program.

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