Not Far Enough: Some Say EPA's Climate Rules Need to do More

The Dave Johnson coal-fired power plant, central Wyoming | Photo: Greg Goebel/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The U.S Environmental Protection Agency issued its long-awaited plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants on Monday, but some climate activists are saying the move doesn't go far enough.

The EPA's proposed Clean Power Plan would, if approved, direct states to develop a range of programs to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants to 70 percent of 2005 emissions levels no later than 2030. Under the proposed rule, California would be asked to cut its power plant emissions by about 23 percent from 2012.

Though Monday's announcement was lauded by many in the environmental movement, the Clean Power Plan did not escape criticism from some who say the reductions goals are too little, and 2030 too late to forestall devastating climate change.

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"This is like fighting a wildfire with a garden hose -- we're glad the president has finally turned the water on, but it's just not enough to get the job done," said Kevin Bundy of the Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute. "President Obama's draft power plant plan should be strengthened to achieve the global pollution cuts scientists recommend. He also has to quit stalling on reducing emissions from other sectors such as air travel and the oil and gas industry. If we keep kicking the can down the road, the cost and difficulty of averting catastrophe will skyrocket."

Other climate activists, such as the Citizens' Climate Lobby's Ross Astoria, are saying the EPA's plan will take years to implement, which is time we can't afford to spend arguing. Astoria suggests a revenue-neutral carbon tax as a more effective, more politically palatable alternative:

[I]t will take several years to implement the regulations, followed by several more of litigation. This is time and money wasted. The International Energy Association recently concluded that in delaying the transition to low-carbon energy production by a mere two years, the cost of the transition has increased by $4 trillion. In contrast to regulations, a carbon tax can be implemented quickly, saving money and decreasing the chances of crossing tipping points that shall lead to catastrophic global warming.

The plan, which relies on EPA's authority to regulate emissions from power plants under the Clean Air Act, is expected to be released in final form in 2015 -- though it faces significant opposition in the coal-friendly House of Representatives. The plan wouldn't set specific limits on emissions from individual power plants. Instead, each state would have until 2016 to draft a strategy to reduce the net carbon dioxide emissions footprint for each megawatt-hour of power the state consumes. The plans could include emissions trading programs (a.k.a. "cap and trade") and renewable portfolio standards similar to California's, upgrading or replacing older, dirtier power plants, or promoting energy conservation.

In 2012, California's power plant emissions averaged 698 pounds of carbon dioxide for each megawatt-hour of power produced. That totaled about 44 million metric tons of CO2 for the year. (By way of comparison, coal-fired West Virginia's emissions footprint ran about 2,019 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour in 2012.)

Under the proposed Clean Power Plan, California would be obliged to cut its per-megawatt-hour CO2 emissions to 537 pounds, a reduction of just over 23 percent.

Using the Clean Air Act as a tool to regulate greenhouse gas emissions has been controversial. Energy industry opponents are saying the proposed emissions reductions will be too expensive and harm the economy. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently estimated that the EPA's proposed rule would cost businesses $50.2 billion a year.

Others, such as economist and columnist Paul Krugman, point out that figure is less than one percent of the nation's economy, and that the Chamber's estimation doesn't include financial benefits from cleaner power plants.

Those benefits include potential savings through energy efficiency programs, as well as public health. The EPA estimates the new rules will prevent between 2,700 and 6,600 premature deaths per year, as well as 150,000 childhood asthma attacks. Money that would have been spent treating those ailments will be freed up for other uses.

"What often gets lost in the discussion is that reducing carbon emissions also decreases other noxious pollutants like mercury, ozone and particulate matter," said Tom Ferkol of the American Thoracic Society, which focuses on respiratory and cardiovascular public health issues. "By reducing carbon pollution today, our children will enjoy the benefits of cleaner air while we address a major cause of global warming."

Of course, the main benefit of the new rule would arise from the degree to which it lessens the devastating economic impacts of climate change. It's actually hard to find a sector of the economy that isn't under threat. Witness a press release in ReWire's inbox this morning in which representatives of the winter sports group Snowriders International lauded the EPA's announcement, saying that shorter and warmer winters have cost the downhill ski industry more than $1.07 billion since 1999. Of small businesses polled by the group Small Business Majority, 52 percent support the EPA's proposed rule to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

So with about a third of the nation's total CO2 emissions produced by power plants, regulating that sector's greenhouse gas pollution is crucial.

But regulating that one-third of total emissions without cutting down on the other two-thirds is remarkably short-sighted. This year's National Climate Assessment said that without emissions cuts far deeper in place far sooner than those in the EPA's Clean Power Plan, we face 10° Fahrenheit of warming by 2100, and four feet of sea level rise in the same time period.

If we're going to avoid catastrophe, in other words, we're going to need to do a lot more than the steps proposed in the Clean Power Plan. But it is a start.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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