Carbon-spewing power plants must finally face the music
By Deirdre Fulton
Portland Phoenix news story
Some call it the “carbon pollution loophole:” the absurdity that while the federal Clean Air Act limits the amount of mercury, arsenic, sulfur, and other pollutants that power plants can spew into the atmosphere, the US government has never regulated power plants’ carbon dioxide emissions. This loophole is the reason electric power plants, which burn huge amounts of coal as part of their day-to-day operations, are the largest source of carbon pollution in the country. It’s why fossil fuel-fired plants have been allowed to belch millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the air, even as the public has come to blame this type of pollution for rising sea levels, increasingly crazy weather patterns, and worsening public health risks — because no one told them to stop.
That loophole may finally be closed, if a plan put forth Monday by President Barack Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency makes it through the gauntlet of controversy and potential litigation that’s sure to come over the next year. The proposal, part of Obama’s Climate Action Plan that attempts to fight global warming on several fronts, aims to cut power plant emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
“That’s like cancelling out annual carbon pollution from two thirds of all cars and trucks in America,” EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said. “And if you add up what we’ll avoid between now and 2030 — it’s more than double the carbon pollution from every power plant in America in 2012.”
The EPA says the proposed rule — which they’re calling the Clean Power Plan — has public health and environmental benefits worth an estimated $55 to $93 billion dollars, and will help reduce asthma and other health issues by improving air quality, create jobs in the renewable-energy and energy-efficiency industries, and lower electric costs over time. Plus, it will reduce soot and smog by 25 percent within the same time frame.
The plan affords great flexibility to states, which can choose how to meet the standards; the EPA will set different emissions goals for each state, depending on how much pollution they emit and how much electricity they produce. To meet those targets, states can increase efficiency at existing plants, shift to low- or zero-emissions power sources, work with other states to cap and trade emission allowances, encourage energy efficiency on the demand-side, or any combination of those strategies.
Maine, which currently emits about 437 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of electricity, must get down to an interim goal of 393 pounds per megawatt hour during the 10 years between 2020-2029 and a final goal of 378 pounds of CO2 per mwh by 2030 — a 13.5 percent reduction over 16 years. According to a state-by-state analysis at Vox, other states are facing much larger necessary reductions; Massachusetts must cut its emissions by 37.7 percent to meet the EPA’s goal, for example. North Dakota faces the smallest reduction at 10 percent, while Washington needs to reduce its emissions by almost 72 percent to meet the EPA’s standard.
“So why do different states have such different targets?” Vox writer Brad Plumer asks. “The EPA tried to take into account the state’s current energy situation when setting these goals. Some states are already on pace to reduce their emissions quickly…Washington is already on pace to phase out a massive coal plant in 2020 anyway. So a big cut is relatively easier for Washington to achieve than it is for, say, North Dakota.”
Local observers said Maine’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a market-based regulatory program involving nine New England and Mid Atlantic states, will help it comply with the new federal standards.
In fact, says Emily Figdor of Environment Maine, the Clean Power Plan “builds on Maine’s leadership” and the RGGI model, which has reduced carbon pollution from power plants in the northeast by 40 percent since 2008. RGGI states agree to a steadily declining emissions cap and sell carbon-emission allowances at auction, putting the proceeds toward clean energy investments. Maine has devoted its revenue from sale of carbon credits under the program almost entirely to energy efficiency programs for residential, business, and large industrial consumers. (Governor Paul LePage has made clear his opposition to RGGI.)
Some say the new rules don’t go far enough, but more (and louder) people will say they go too far.
“This is a big deal, and the big polluters know it,” said Glen Brand, director of the Sierra Club’s Maine chapter. “This is the beginning of what could be the biggest climate fight in history.”
The EPA is holding a 120-day public comment period, during which time it will accept written comment and hold four public hearings in Atlanta, Denver, Pittsburgh, and Washington, DC (find more details at 2epa.gov/carbon-pollution-standards). The rules are expected to be finalized next year, and states will have until 2016 to submit plans showing how they intend to comply.
Environmental groups expect significant opposition from representatives of the fossil fuel industry and politicians who either represent coal-producing states (such as Wyoming, West Virginia, and Kentucky) or who generally believe cutting carbon pollution could have negative economic impacts. Opponents are expected to attack the proposed rules in the media, on the campaign trail, and in the courts. And they won’t be subtle. On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky (where a full 93 percent of electricity generation comes from coal-fired plants), called the EPA’s plan a “dagger in the heart of the American middle class.”
Also on Monday, the National Republican Congressional Committee sent an email to Maine reporters encapsulating the basic opposition line: “Today, Environmental Protection Agency Chief Gina McCarthy, unveiled the Administration’s costly and job-destroying carbon limit rule. Now, Emily Cain will have to decide between saving the economy and jobs or supporting the President’s liberal cap-and-trade scheme for political gain.” (The NRCC sent out an identical email that substituted Cain’s 2nd Congressional District primary opponent, Troy Jackson.)
The National Mining Association said the proposal was a “flawed approach” that would put the US electric grid “in jeopardy” while raising energy costs. “The EPA wants to put the lights out on our energy future,” blared the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity’s homepage.
“I know people are wondering: can we cut pollution while keeping our energy affordable and reliable? We can, and we will,” the EPA’s McCarthy said, pre-empting her opponent’s arguments. “Critics claim your energy bills will skyrocket. They’re wrong. Any small, short-term change in electricity prices would be within normal fluctuations the power sector already deals with. And any small price increase — think about the price of a gallon of milk a month — is dwarfed by huge benefits.”
Indeed, a study released just last month (one suggesting other states look to RGGI as a model as they develop their own plans for carbon reduction) showed that RGGI states are reducing carbon pollution and other hazardous emissions, growing local economies, and seeing electricity price drops — a whopping 14 percent in Maine since RGGI took effect.
McCarthy and others point to Obama’s fuel efficiency standards, which were widely feared and criticized when they were first unveiled, as evidence that combating pollution doesn’t necessarily lead to job loss or economic downturn. “In 2011, we exported almost 33 percent more cars than we did in 2009 — a clear sign of a competitive industry,” she said.
Still, even if the rules emerge from the comment period robust (or at least intact), we’re not out of the woods — not by a long shot.
“Post-industrial nations like ours will reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade and indeed those reductions have already begun” wrote Steven Cohen, executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, at the Huffington Post. “Nevertheless, the vast increases in fossil fuel based energy use in China and India alone virtually guarantee continued global warming. No treaty or policy will reduce the hunger for fossil fuels in those places. Only a lower-priced, reliable and convenient replacement for fossil fuels will make a difference…A replacement for fossil fuels is essential for ecological, economic and political sustainability and stability. Governments should focus as much human brainpower as we can find to develop and implement renewable energy technology. The goal should be to make fossil fuels irrelevant.”