A layer of haze looms west of the Four Corners Generating Station in New Mexico. Southern California Edison recently sold its stake in the power plant, but the facility still burns coal to produce power that goes to Arizona customers instead. Photo: Josh Stephenson / Durango Herald

By Evan Halper and Ralph Vartabedian
25 October 2014

(Los Angeles Times) – California's pioneering climate-change law has a long reach, but that doesn't mean all its mandates will help stave off global warming.

To meet the requirement that it cut carbon emissions, for example, Southern California Edison recently sold its stake in one of the West's largest coal-fired power plants, located hundreds of miles out of state.

But the Four Corners Generating Station in New Mexico still burns coal — only the power that Edison once delivered to California now goes to a different utility's customers in Arizona.

Similar swaps are taking place at coal plants throughout the West, and they underscore the limitations California faces as it tries to confront climate change in the absence of a coherent federal plan.

The Obama administration has proposed a nationwide policy on power plant emissions, but it won't begin taking effect for at least two years. And even then it won't hold other states to the strict standards California imposes on itself.

In the meantime, greenhouse gas emissions that Californians are paying a lot of money to suppress are reemerging elsewhere.

"The California utilities are selling out their ownership in these plants, but the plants are still burning the coal," said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy director at WildEarth Guardians, an environmental advocacy group. "The carbon is just on someone else's hands. It is not being reduced."

California regulators say they have taken steps to prevent utility company executives from outwitting them and insist state rules will lead to real reductions in carbon dioxide, the main gas scientists blame for global warming. But officials concede their efforts have run up against the limits of California's ability to control what takes place outside its borders, a point the utilities also emphasize.

"California does not have the power to regulate what happens outside of the state," said Gary Stern, director of regulatory policy at Edison. "When we sold Four Corners, we were no longer responsible for the emissions of that plant."

The conflict flows from California's reliance on out-of-state power plants for nearly a third of its electricity. [more]

Despite California climate law, carbon emissions may be a shell game

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