It can be hard to know what to think of EPA’s proposal for regulating CO2 emissions from existing power plants, unveiled last week. Environmental groups all praised it, but they actually want stronger rules. Conservatives hate it, but they hate all environmental regulation, so that doesn’t prove it is strong enough. Some scientists think it will do more harm than good, because it may boost natural-gas burning. But public health advocates are predicting it will save lives.
So what should you make of all this? There is no one easy answer, but I’ve boiled the brouhaha into four ways the proposal is great and three ways it's flawed.
It’s not often that environmentalists are in the position of defending the government. Usually they’re trying to stop something bad -- a pipeline, a terminal for exporting coal or liquefied natural gas -- rather than cheering on something good. The defensive playbook is well-established. Offense is a little more tricky, especially when the plan you’re promoting isn’t even as strong as you want it to be.
But that’s the position green groups are in with the Obama administration’s proposal for regulating carbon emissions from existing power plants under the Clean Air Act. The EPA's emission-reduction targets fall a little bit short of what environmentalists hoped for, and well short of what is technologically feasible and what will ultimately be needed to actually avert climate catastrophe. But Republican politicians, conservative activists, the coal lobby, and some coal-state Democrats are already attacking the proposal. So environmentalists are speaking up in support of the rules (and will call for them to be strengthened), lest the EPA only hear criticism during the 120-day public-comment period and the rest of the year before the rules are finalized.
Environmentalists have an advantage over their conservative opponents: The public agrees with them. Several recent polls have found public support running roughly 2-to-1 in favor of regulating CO2 from power plants, even if it means higher electricity prices.
Conservatives and business interests were attacking the EPA’s Clean Energy Plan to reduce power-plant CO2 emissions before it had even been released.
Last year, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-backed conservative policy organization, drafted a model state legislative resolution opposing EPA regulation of carbon emissions. Last week, the Chamber of Commerce released a study predicting dire economic consequences -- a GDP loss of $50 billion per year.
Now that the actual proposal is out, the right is ready to go after it from every possible angle. They will sue to stop it, but courts generally won’t hear challenges to regulations until after they've been finalized, which won't happen until June 2015. So for the next year, the battle will be fought in the court of public opinion, with everything from grassroots lobbying to cable TV sound bites to onslaughts of political ads. Conservatives will organize around two main messages: that forcing power plants away from reliably low-cost coal will drive up the price of energy and jeopardize our energy supply, and that higher-cost energy will hamper economic growth.
The rules are finally out. In what some pundits are calling the most important act of President Obama’s second term, on Monday morning the EPA released its “Clean Power Plan.” These are the proposed rules that will require reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from existing electric power plants. Electric generation accounts for about 40 percent of current U.S. CO2 emissions.
The text of the regulations runs to 645 pages, and it isn’t exactly a page-turner. We suspect you’ve got more fun things to do with your time on this lovely spring day than to read it. So here we answer the nine most important questions about the proposal for you:
1. What will the rules do? The EPA intends to create a “rate-based” limit on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants for each state depending on its current emissions. Rate-based means it sets a standard for how much CO2 is emitted per megawatt hour of electricity produced, not a limit on total carbon tonnage. The plan is designed, as was expected, to give states maximum flexibility to meet these goals in whichever way works best for them and to avoid constricting economic growth. States can, however, choose to convert their rate-based goal into a total tonnage goal if they prefer.
Sunday afternoon is not the best time to break news. Monday morning is when the EPA’s proposed rules for greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants will be officially unveiled by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. But federal agencies leak like a sieve, and so we learned Sunday what the outlines of the rules will be: CO2 emissions from existing power plants will have to be cut by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.
Environmental activists are not overwhelmed with joy at the news, although they remain hopeful that the final rules will be significant. The target is a little weaker than they want, and they say the battle to strengthen the rules during the coming public comment period will be immense.
“It's a good first step, and only the proposed rule,” says Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen's energy program. “We'll submit comments pushing for a stronger standard.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council agrees. “The key will be how they solicit comments on more ambitious targets,” says David Hawkins, NRDC’s director of climate programs. “We need an open mind on their part to consider evidence we can do better.”
The EPA’s proposed CO2 regulations for existing power plants haven’t even been released yet, and already there's a big brawl over their costs and benefits.
As Bloomberg notes, the early rush on political messaging shows that both sides expect voters' views of the proposal to be determined by whether they think it will help or hurt their pocketbooks.
President Obama is expected to unveil the proposed rules on Monday, but the Chamber of Commerce -- a right-wing trade association representing established big business -- got a jump on the news cycle five days early by releasing a report arguing that the rules would impose massive economic hardship. It claims that if EPA sets formidable pollution-control targets, it could reduce coal-based electric generation capacity by one-third. That, the Chamber predicts, would result in economic losses of $50 billion a year and the loss of 224,000 jobs.
Environmental groups and the Obama administration say that’s baloney. It’s not as if the coal power would be replaced with nothing. If you reduce energy demand through improved efficiency, it creates jobs weatherizing homes and retrofitting office buildings. If you reduce coal emissions through improved pollution controls on the coal plants, that creates jobs at the plants themselves. And if you replace coal with new wind or solar generation, that too creates jobs in those growing economic sectors.
John Podesta, the White House counselor guiding the administration’s climate change policies, pointed out on Twitter that incumbent business groups like the Chamber consistently overestimate the economic costs of environmental regulations.
We’ve gotten soft. The economic crash of 2008, and then the rise of natural gas from the fracking boom, have gotten us used to small but steady declines in U.S. CO2 emissions. Not anymore. According to the newest Monthly Energy Review from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, released Wednesday, that five-year trend is clearly over.
CO2 emissions from fossil fuels increased by 2.39 percent in 2013. For January and February of 2014, the only months this year for which the EIA has data thus far, carbon emissions increased by 7.45 percent over the same period last year.
The main culprit is coal, and that illustrates the importance of the EPA’s forthcoming regulations for emissions from coal-fired power plants, which President Obama is expected to unveil on Monday. CO2 emissions from coal burning rose by more than 4 percent in 2013 compared to 2012 and are almost 12 percent higher for the first two months of 2014 versus the first two months of 2013.
On Wednesday, on a cloudy spring morning, the president laid out the "Obama doctrine" for foreign policy during a graduation address at West Point. The highly anticipated speech came just a day after Obama announced plans for drawing down U.S. troops in Afghanistan. In response to conservative complaints that he lacks a coherent policy vision, Obama did his classic triangulation shtick of laying out the dichotomy he transcends: interventionists on one hand think we should police the world, while "self-described realists" say we should avoid entanglements. Both are kind of right but kind of wrong, while Obama has found the position that is in between and above them both.
The speech was filled with details on the national security threats that emanate from terrorism and instability in the Middle East. But there were only a few sentences on climate change, the menace that threatens to destroy the world's great cities, uproot millions, and turn crop fields to dust. Secretary of State John Kerry recently said climate change is as much of a threat as terrorism or weapons of mass destruction, but Obama made no such comparison. Rather, he said, "for the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism."
When Obama did mention climate change, more than two-thirds of the way into his speech, he presented it as the paradigmatic issue that requires multilateral action and U.S. leadership:
Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy organization founded and funded by the Koch brothers, has it in for Detroit. One of the leading groups affiliated with the Tea Party movement, AFP is trying to put the kibosh on a deal that would rescue Detroit from financial ruin. The New York Timesreports:
Over the last five months, a deal has come together that would solve some of the most contentious issues in Detroit’s bankruptcy. It would minimize the pension cuts for 30,000 retirees and city workers, save the city’s art collection and give a reasonable amount of money to the city’s bondholders.
As expected, there were some objections from a few big insurance companies that stood to lose heavily. But with the support of Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, the deal seemed to have a shot in the state legislature, which would be required to spend about $195 million of tobacco-settlement money on behalf of Detroit’s pensioners.
And then, a few days ago, a loud and depressingly familiar voice rose in protest. The Koch brothers, through the screeching megaphone they built known as Americans for Prosperity, condemned the deal and announced plans to contact 90,000 conservatives around the state to build up pressure against it. The Associated Press reported that the group threatened to run ads against any Republicans in the legislature who voted for the deal in the coming days.
AFP has already set up a website — “No more bailouts for Detroit!” — that plays on the long-running, sometimes racially inflected resentment of Detroit around Michigan.
All of us who ride bikes know the feeling of not wanting to stop completely at an intersection when there’s no one coming. It’s an understandable impulse. Far more often, though, I’ve been legally walking across a street and had a bike roll through the crosswalk, forcing me to freeze in mid-intersection as it breaks the law and crosses my path. Sometimes, it zips frighteningly close.
But some cycling advocates argue that we should make it legal for bikes to go through a red light, after stopping to check that there are no oncoming cars and pedestrians. This is called the “Idaho stop.” Legal only in Idaho and a few towns in Colorado, it also allows bikes to roll slowly through stop signs, treating them essentially as yield signs.
The idea has been picking up steam for the last few years in local blogs from San Francisco to New York, thanks partly to this oddly popular video. In a recent, widely read article in Vox, Joseph Stromberg compellingly laid out the case, drawing on the authority of physics: “So many cyclists do these things ... because they make sense, in terms of the energy expended by a cyclist as he or she rides. Unlike a car, getting a bike started from a standstill requires a lot of energy from the rider. Once it's going, the bike's own momentum carries it forward, so it requires much less energy.” (Of course, if we made traffic laws primarily about physical efficiency instead of safety, we'd all be roadkill.)
Jeff Miller, president of the Alliance for Biking & Walking, argues that because bicyclists can more easily see and hear pedestrians than drivers can, rules designed for cars should not necessarily apply to bikes. “We don’t perceive any concern or threat on the part of pedestrians” from the Idaho stop, he says.
But bicycle advocacy groups are split on the issue. Miller's coalition has not taken a position on the Idaho stop; many of its member organizations support it, but other leading cycling organizations don't.
Even if the Idaho stop is good for bike riders, it's not good for cities.
Ben Adler covers environmental policy and politics for Grist, with a focus on climate change, energy, and cities. When he isn't contemplating the world's end, he also writes about architecture and media. You can follow him on Twitter.