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Cleaner power needed

NEWBURG, MD - MAY 29: Emissions spew out of a large stack at the coal fired Morgantown Generating Station, on May 29, 2014 in Newburg, Maryland. Next week President Obama is expected to announce new EPA plans to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal fired power plants. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 494865083 ** OUTS - ELSENT and FPG - OUTS * NM, PH, VA if sourced by CT, LA or MoD **
NEWBURG, MD - MAY 29: Emissions spew out of a large stack at the coal fired Morgantown Generating Station, on May 29, 2014 in Newburg, Maryland. Next week President Obama is expected to announce new EPA plans to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal fired power plants. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 494865083 ** OUTS - ELSENT and FPG - OUTS * NM, PH, VA if sourced by CT, LA or MoD **(Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

One week ago, the Supreme Court dealt a serious setback to efforts to protect the nation from the worsening effects of climate change, voting 5-4 along ideological lines to halt the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan while a legal challenge brought primarily by energy-producing states wends its way through the courts. Such a stay was unexpected and raises the possibility that the court could rule against the EPA's authority to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Even Justice Antonin Scalia's death may not make a difference, depending on how lower courts rule.

With a gridlocked Congress having demonstrated more than once that it's ill-equipped to deal with this serious environmental challenge, the Clean Power Plan was regarded as the nation's best chance to adequately regulate coal-fired power plants, a major contributor to global warming. And, after all, the Supreme Court had previously ruled that EPA had the authority to regulate carbon as a pollutant and, just two years ago, ruled that the same agency could enforce the "good neighbor rule," protecting down-wind states (including Maryland) from other power plant pollutants.

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While this is a troubling setback, it does not mean the U.S. must settle for the status quo. For one thing, the court's decision doesn't mean that King Coal is back on his throne. No matter how the Supreme Court's conservative wing ultimately votes, don't expect big private sector investments in coal-burning power facilities now or in the future. Those days are past. The rise of shale gas and fracking and ensured that, at least in the U.S., the coal industry's biggest days are behind it.

But more importantly, the ruling does not prevent states from moving forward with their own plans to reduce their dependence on electricity from coal. In three weeks, a group of Maryland state senators will hold a hearing on a proposal to expand Maryland's so-called Renewable Portfolio Standard. The legislation, Senate Bill 921, would increase the amount of renewable energy that utilities would have to use from the current goal of 20 percent by 2022 to 25 percent by 2020. It is a more-than-reasonable revision that could further spur investment in wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy.

If anything, the goal might still not be ambitious enough. As a coastal state, Maryland faces greater risk from climate change than most. Just last year, researchers predicted Ocean City and a major chunk of the Eastern Shore could be underwater by 2100 because of rising sea levels. Other states have set even higher portfolio standards: California, for instance, has been working toward a 33 percent standard by 2020 since 2008 (and expects to be at 25 percent by year's end). Maryland's goal, clean energy advocates say, is around the middle of the pack of the 33 states that have so far set renewable standards.

Will it raise the cost of electricity? Perhaps, but the bill's backers say it may amount to no more than 58 cents per month for the average household. And given the long-term savings associated with renewable energy including those associated with improved health — carbon reductions having the side benefit of reducing health hazards like ground-level ozone, too — have been estimated by the EPA to produce a seven-fold return on renewable investment. That adds up to billions of dollars each year and essentially puts back in the consumer's pockets more than what it removes.

Gov. Larry Hogan has yet to take a position on the bill, but he ought to support it. Recently, the bipartisan Maryland Climate Change Commission chaired by Mr. Hogan's environmental chief recommended raising the state's goal for lowering overall greenhouse gas emissions from 25 percent by 2020 to 40 percent by 2030. That's a goal that can't be achieved unless the coal-fired power plants are part of the equation — the energy sector is the single largest producer of greenhouse gases (32 percent) followed by transportation (28 percent) and industry (20 percent).

And while state lawmakers are debating greenhouse gas emissions, they also ought to take another look at what qualifies as a Tier 1 renewable. Maryland's current definition includes waste-to-energy incinerators that stretch the definition of "clean" energy. Such facilities may have a role in the state's energy future but they should not get the same boost reserved for renewables like solar and wind. Finally, it should be noted that increasing the demand for renewable power will create jobs as people are hired to design, build, install and maintain clean energy generators — a fringe benefit that a pro-business administration ought to take seriously as well.

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