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Oklahoma fights EPA publicly, reduces emissions privately

Even as Oklahoma politicians rail against new carbon regulations, their state is quietly positioning itself to dramatically reduce emissions.
Shady Point
The Shady Point coal burning power plant in Panama, Oklahoma.

When the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed ambitious new carbon standards earlier this month, Oklahoma's attorney general denounced them almost immediately. The EPA's plan, which would require the country to cut power plant emissions by 30% over the next sixteen years, "has no legal basis or the force of law," Attorney General Scott Pruitt said in a statement released on the same day as the EPA's proposal.

“Rather than working through Congress, the president instead is choosing to rule by executive fiat in order to implement his environmental agenda," he continued. "His actions undermine the rule of law and the spirit of cooperative federalism that pervades the environmental laws passed by Congress. As Oklahoma Attorney General, I will continue to review the potential impact of this misguided EPA rule and examine the options Oklahoma has to protect the citizens and industry of this state.”

A spokesperson for the attorney general later confirmed to msnbc that Pruitt is considering a lawsuit against the EPA. Meanwhile, Oklahoma's senior senator, Republican Jim Inhofe, declared that the American people had become "victims" of "a green agenda that has been dreamed up by the environmentalist community for decades."

Inhofe has long been the Senate's most outspoken climate denialist, and Pruitt has already sued the EPA multiple times. Both appear prepared to fight the EPA again over its new proposal, and do everything within their power to stop the suggested emissions standards from being implemented in their state. On the surface, Oklahoma's elected officials appear to be a major obstacle to greenhouse gas reductions.

Yet scratch the surface, and a different story emerges. While Oklahoma politicians denounce climate change mitigation efforts in public, the state has been quietly expanding its renewable energy portfolio and bringing down carbon emissions on its own initiative. In fact, the state is now well positioned to meet the EPA's proposed standards, according to Whitney Pearson, associate field organizer for the Oklahoma chapter of the Sierra Club.

"We believe that we can lead the way in meeting the standards of these protections because of our ability to tap our world class and low-cost clean energy and wind," said Pearson. The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) reports that Oklahoma was able to generate 14.8% of its electricity from wind power in 2013 and ranks sixth in the nation when it comes to overall wind power-generating capacity.

The state's wind boom is a fairy recent phenomenon. AWEA estimates that over half of the state's 3,134 megawatts in wind capacity was added in 2011 and 2012 alone. That dramatic rise in capacity has more to do with market forces than anything else, said Pearson.

"The price of wind is extremely competitive right now versus coal, and that means that the utilities are going to purchase wind," she said. "It's good for their customers and good for their system in keeping cost down."

Indeed, the price of coal has been rising for years, especially for states like Oklahoma which largely import it from elsewhere. Although coal mining was a major boon to Oklahoma's local economy through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the state's mining operations peaked during World War I, never to return to their former highs. More recently, the state has relied on Wyoming to supply its coal.

But it's not just rising prices and declining local industry which have helped wean Oklahoma off coal; the EPA and the courts have done their part as well. The Clean Air Act requires that states take action to prevent regional haze, or visible pollution, either by implementing an EPA-crafted plan or by designing their own strategy which meets EPA standards. In 2011, the EPA rejected Oklahoma's plan for dealing with regional haze, prompting attorney general Pruitt to sue the agency. After a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the EPA in 2013, Pruitt tried to take the case to the United States Supreme Court. The court decided not to hear his appeal, meaning that the state's public utility company had no choice but to comply with the EPA's anti-regional haze policies. The company, Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co., is now in the process of diminishing its reliance on coal-fired energy in favor of natural gas.

"If you look at the federal requirements, they're helping the state," said Mark Meo, a professor in the University of Oklahoma's College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences. "They're helping the state sell more natural gas, they're helping the state expand its wind power capability, and they're helping the state move forward with energy efficiency. Yet they'll say the EPA is a monster."

Not all state officials are fighting the EPA's new regulations, however. Michael Teague, the head of Oklahoma's Department of Environmental Quality and an appointee of Republican Gov. Mary Fallin, recently told the local press that thinks the proposed emission standards can be implemented relatively easily.

“I don’t think any of these rules really caught utilities off guard," he said. "I think they’re all looking pretty far forward. So I’m not sure compliance for us will be difficult.”