3:17 PM EDT, September 23, 2013
The regulations released last week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to limit carbon emissions from new power plants are so clearly necessary — and have been in the works for years — that it's difficult to even think of them as somehow controversial. That is, unless, one continues to deny the existence of man-made climate change.
If you are a denier, well, there's not much to be said on the subject. It requires only that you ignore that global warming is happening at an unprecedented rate, that the heat-trapping effects of carbon dioxide have been documented since the mid-19th century, and that oceans are warming, sea levels are rising and glaciers have been retreating to a record extent.
Coal-fired power plants are a major contributor of greenhouse gases and, as the U.S. Supreme Court has already affirmed, the EPA has the authority to regulate those emissions as pollutants. For the agency to have ignored what is so obviously the most pressing environmental issue of our times would have been the real outrage.
But easily lost in the rule-making are two critical points. First, the EPA has not banned coal-fired power plants but has set stricter emissions standards. It's possible for a new plant to meet them, but it will require technology to capture and store carbon. At least four U.S. plants are either planned or currently under construction that will have such an ability.
Second, these regulations are hardly the death-knell for coal — at least not in and of themselves. That industry faces many other pressing issues, from the other pollutants that burning coal produces, such as mercury and arsenic, to competition from natural gas. The rise of hydraulic fracturing has made natural gas a far more affordable alternative fuel for power generation, particularly as it produces less carbon.
That's a big reason why the outlook for U.S. coal, at least for domestic use, was lousy long before the EPA published the new rules. That's not a happy situation for coal-producing regions of the country, including Western Maryland, but job losses in Appalachian coal mines are not an adequate reason to ignore dirty, coal-burning power plants that generate an estimated one-third of U.S.-produced greenhouse gases.
The more challenging regulations aren't expected until next year when the EPA tackles greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. Should the agency require plants to be retrofitted with carbon capture technology or gradually be shuttered, the economic impact will be considerably larger. But that is a fight for another day.
Critics are correct about one thing. It likely would have been better if Congress had been writing the rules on greenhouse gas emissions and developed them as part of a broader energy policy. But as this week's standoff over financing government and defunding health care reform has proven so masterfully, Washington has become far too dysfunctional and partisan to handle anything more debatable than putting air traffic controllers back to work after their jobs were foolishly trimmed by sequestration.
What they have wrong is that this is somehow an affront to the economy or to middle-class families. Whatever increase in energy costs these rules may entail — and it's not even clear that there will be much of one — it pales compared to the consequences of climate change and the costly devastation that it may well represent.
In a hearing last week, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy was asked how the new rules will reduce specific climate change measures like droughts or heat-related deaths. She said it's not possible to predict. But what she did make clear is that reducing carbon emissions will make it possible for the U.S. to convince other nations to take similar measures. And when countries like China and India are on board, real progress on carbon may be possible.
Maryland has more to lose than most states should the U.S. and other countries fail to take action, as ocean levels could rise two to six feet by the end of the century. That makes this not part of an Obama administration "war on jobs" that some conservatives claim but a war for self-preservation in the face of a looming and very real threat.
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