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Carbon rules can work [Editorial]

Brace yourselves. President Barack Obama is expected to announce today new EPA rules to reduce carbon emissions from the nation's power plants by 20 percent and to force more polluters to participate in cap-and-trade programs. The inflammatory rhetoric from the opposition is likely to reach a Category 5 Event: Massive bloviation.

Conservatives, particularly that subset of flat-earthers who are skeptical of anything that smacks of "science," are expected to pounce, first, because it involves addressing climate change, second, may be viewed as anti-coal and, third, involves executive authority, which they detest — at least when it's wielded by a Democrat. They will rail against the regulations as costly, unnecessary and job-killing when, in fact, they are none of the above.

If anything, the prospect of reducing carbon emissions from existing power plants by 20 percent is almost criminally overdue. And the impact on electricity costs, coal production and the economy is likely to be modest — if anything, it will produce more jobs in aggregate as new investments are made in greener energy, conservation and new markets for buying and selling government-issued pollution permits.

How can we predict this? Easy. Maryland has already started down this road as part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a nine-state coalition that has set limits on carbon dioxide emissions in this state as well as New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island. Emission "allowances" are sold at auction and the proceeds are used to promote renewable energy and supplement energy costs in low-income households.

It has not pushed electricity prices significantly higher. It has not hurt the state's economy. It has not killed jobs. And while it's true that the domestic coal industry has suffered in recent years, it's obvious that the chief culprit has been the rise of cheap and readily-available natural gas. Americans are destined to get more of their electricity from gas-fueled power plants thanks more to the development of drilling technology than government regulation.

Maryland demonstrated considerable foresight in jumping on a market-based program like cap-and-trade early, and now other states will need to follow that example. And it should not be a partisan effort either as RGGI was endorsed by Northeastern governors of both political parties when it was first developed nearly a decade ago (including at one point by a certain former investment banker and Massachusetts governor named Mitt Romney). The failure of an energy bill that contained a national cap-and-trade program in the Democratically-controlled U.S. Senate in 2010 was one of the most regrettable losses of the first Obama term.

Yet this is a classic win-win situation. Cap-and-trade has an effect similar to a tax on carbon, allowing the marketplace to correct a worsening problem — the failure to appropriately factor in the true cost of burning coal and other fossil fuels on human health and the environment. It's time to stop subsidizing the coal industry with our children's future.

Coal-fired power plants are this country's single greatest source of greenhouse gases and thus a major culprit in climate change. And it's also abundantly clear that a divided, sharply partisan Congress is fundamentally incapable of addressing this problem. That leaves only the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House to protect our future.

Make no mistake, this is not anti-business. A lot of folks in the utility industry will be pleased to see the regulations move forward, chiefly because it will finally bring some consistency to the market and create new opportunities for renewable power. Meanwhile, burning less coal will also mean reducing harmful and potentially cancer-causing byproducts like mercury and sulfuric acid that are a threat to human health and the environment as well.

Opponents can make all kinds of misleading claims about cap-and-trade, but they can't call it unproven. It's worked in the Northeast — reducing power plant pollution by as much as 40 percent, providing $1.6 billion in new revenue for energy-related government investments and producing a negligible impact on consumers' monthly bills. The next step is to get the rest of the county on board, and then perhaps the U.S. can convince the world (at least those countries that haven't already taken similar steps) to follow.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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