The Environmental Protection Agency has finalized the Clean Power Plan. This plan has been evolving since multiple supreme court rulings avered that Carbon Dioxide is a pollutant and should be regulated according to the Clean Air Act. Carbon Dioxide is the principle greenhouse gas driving global warming. It’s release to the environment must be slowed and ultimately stopped to prevent catastrophic climate change.
The plan seeks to lower the emissions of Carbon Dioxide by going after the low hanging fruit first: coal fired power plants. The national mandate is to reduce emissions from power plants by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, so implementation will be spread over 15 years. Interestingly, current levels of CO2 emissions are lower that 2005 already. This is due to a combination of the recession lowering demand for power and the increasing reliance on sustainable energy supplies such as wind and the conversion of older coal plants to natural gas. Natural gas plants have always been cleaner burning in a number of ways such as particulate emissions, but especially cleaner due to lower CO2 emissions.
Realistically the country has been moving away from coal already. The cost of coal fired plants has been on the rise because of the increasing recognition of the harmful health effects of burning coal. This has resulted in stricter control of emissions other that Carbon Dioxide. These include particulates which when inhaled interfere with breathing, and toxic metals that pollute the environment and have health consequences of their own. An additional factor driving down the use of coal is the availability of increasing amounts of cheap Natural Gas brought on by the fracking boom.
The situation here in Arkansas is made more difficult because we are behind the curve when it comes to transitioning away from coal. Although the national mandate is a 32 percent reduction averaged over the states in aggregate , ours is 37 percent. The relevant measure is “pounds of CO2 produced per amount of electricity generated (lbs CO2/MMWhe .) California for example only needs to reduce its carbon emissions by 14 percent because they have already moved aggressively to sustainable energy supplies. The states have much latitude in how to lower carbon emissions. Increasing efficiency in energy production from coal plants, carbon trading, and producing more energy from renewable energy are all on the table.
In addition to reducing the risk of global warming, the health benefits of cleaner air abound. Reduced particulate emissions will reduce the incidence of asthma and other cardiopulmonary ailments. Other improvements include lowered emissions of toxic heavy metals such as Cadmium, Mercury, and Lead. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that tens of billions of dollars will be saved in 2030 by improvements in human health and environmental services.
The coal industry is of course squealing like a stuck pig and will sue, along with states heavily dependent on coal use like Arkansas. Their argument is regulation will drive up the cost of electricity. History has shown time and again that industry claims of the cost of regulation are invariably exaggerated. The EPA claims that actual costs of electricity will go down.
And finally there are jobs. Although a few jobs in mining, transporting and utilizing coal will be lost many many more will be created in the new industries associated with renewable energy.