About the SA Blog Network



Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American
Observations HomeAboutContact

U.S. Starts National CO2 Permits, Cap and Trade Works, and Other Surprises

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

thomas-c-ferguson-power plantThe U.S. has begun to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants—quietly, with little fanfare and starting in Texas. The Thomas C. Ferguson Power Plant in Llano County is being modernized with the installation of a combined cycle natural gas-fired turbine for improved efficiency at generating electricity. The refurbished “peaker” plant—so-called because it is fired up when electricity demand peaks in nearby Austin and elsewhere in Texas’s grid—will cut smog-forming emissions. Sensors to monitor greenhouse gas pollution also will be added to the plant.

That qualifies the Texas plant for a greenhouse gas permit, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which began this year requiring any project that has an impact on greenhouse gas emissions to obtain such permission. In most places, states will be in charge of that permitting process as they are for other kinds of air pollution, but in Texas—whose governor has threatened to secede as well as embarked on a run for president of these United States—the state has refused to do that oversight. So, the EPA is in charge of evaluating permit requests in Texas, as is also the case in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Oregon and Wyoming for a variety of reasons.

What gets measured often gets managed, and the permits are a prelude to federal restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA is currently evaluating what might make sense as a standard, to be proposed under the requirements of the Clean Air Act. Any such standards will take effect no earlier than 2012.

The standard would not be part of a national cap-and-trade program for, say, carbon dioxide. Such a program failed to pass muster in Congress in 2009. Nonetheless, a new analysis of a similar regional program in the U.S.—the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative of 10 northeastern states—shows that RGGI delivered some $1.6 billion in overall net benefits to the regional economy including jobs, largely from increases in energy efficiency (though power plant owners will see a decline in revenue of some $1.6 billion). RGGI also seems to have weaned its member states off $765 million worth of “imported” energy, or fossil fuels not produced in the region.

Paired with more stringent fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, greenhouse gas regulations will begin to reduce the emissions that are warming global temperaturesand represent the Obama administration’s most significant efforts to combat climate change. But given the failure of efforts to capture and store carbon dioxide at projects such as Mountaineer and FutureGen, it will be a long time yet before anything besides an economic recession delivers big cuts in CO2 emissions from the U.S.

Image: Courtesy of LCRA

David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Rights & Permissions

Comments 5 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. oldvic 4:09 am 11/17/2011

    “…but in Texas—whose governor has threatened to secede…”

    Head-scratching here: I can’t see that a person’s threat to leave a nation is a significant pressure tactic to sway national policy. What am I missing?


    Link to this
  2. 2. Taylor 12:30 pm 11/17/2011

    “but in Texas—whose governor has threatened to secede as well as embarked on a run for president of these United States—the state has refused to do that oversight”

    Perry never threatened to secede. He jokingly approved of another person’s call to secede resulting from the party-line vote passing Obamacare even though a majority of the American people disapproved of it and none of the people voting for it had a chance to read it before voting.

    You also appear to be blaming Perry for Texas’s lack of oversight because he is too busy running for President or something. However, any such oversight would have to come from the legislature, not the governor.

    Your political cheap shots at Perry are not appropriate in this science magazine.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Dredd 1:07 pm 11/17/2011


    Now if we could improve on grid efficiency. The national grid leaks two out of every three barrels of oil.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Dredd 1:08 pm 11/17/2011

    The equivalent of two out of three (67%).

    Link to this
  5. 5. KiwiBuzz 3:04 pm 11/18/2011

    Losses in the National Grid would be between 5% and 8%. The increase in renewable energy–usually in the wrong place–will tend to increase losses.

    The world has not warmed for between 10 and 15 years. Because we are in a line in your marriage, there is not much chance that it will warm in the next 6 months to a year. Because of sunspots are declining and the last sunspot cycle was unusually long, history tells us that cooling is more likely than warming.

    According to the latest from the IPCC, (Richard Black, BBC) global warming may not re-start for more than 30 years–perhaps 90–due to “natural climate variations”. So a) we don’t have much to worry about and b) why didn’t the climate models predict this?

    Nobody has ever proved that carbon dioxide does anything other than make plants grow. So why is the EPA regulating it?

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article