If the steady decline in U.S. carbon emissions in recent years has lulled you into a sense of complacency, this fact should snap you to attention: Last year, U.S. CO2 emissions rose by 2 percent over 2012, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Brad Plumer provides a good explanation in The Washington Post. Over the past few years, the natural gas boom has made gas cheap and helped it displace coal, hence the declining emissions. But the price of gas inched back up last year, thanks to tighter supply and more demand for home heating fuel, causing some power plant operators to turn back to coal.
So how could we get back on track? If polluters had to pay the social costs of their emissions, that would make both coal and gas a lot more expensive, and renewables comparatively cheaper. But that would require an act of Congress, and the votes just aren’t there.
In the meantime, Obama has directed the EPA to exercise its authority under the Clean Air Act and place limitations on CO2 emissions from both new and existing power plants. The EPA already has such rules for other pollutants released by burning coal, such as mercury and sulfur dioxide. Why shouldn’t CO2 be regulated too?
Well, Republicans and the odd coal-state Democrat in Congress have an answer for that: because they don’t care about climate change, but they do care a lot about the coal industry.
Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) are cosponsoring a bill that would strip the EPA of its ability to regulate CO2 emissions from power plants. On Tuesday, it passed the House Energy and Power subcommittee that Whitfield chairs. In light of Republican domination in the House of Representatives, there’s a good chance the Electricity Security and Affordability Act will pass the full Energy and Commerce Committee, and even the full House. But it will be dead on arrival in the Democratic Senate. It is worth looking at, nonetheless, as it shows what Republicans might do if they gained control of the Senate and White House.
For existing power plants, which are responsible for one-third of American greenhouse gas emissions, the bill would simply revoke the EPA’s regulatory power. The agency would be able to set a standard for carbon emissions from plants, but it couldn’t implement the standard unless Congress passed a federal law endorsing it and specifying the date it would take effect. “The standard would be just an academic curiosity, sitting on a shelf gathering dust,” says David Hawkins, the director of climate programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council. With this bill, in other words, Congress would arrogate to itself the EPA’s authority to regulate emissions from existing plants.
For new plants, the bill would theoretically allow EPA to set CO2 standards, but only under conditions that environmentalists say are sure not to be met. According to the bill’s fact sheet, the EPA would not be able to establish a standard for new coal plants unless the standard had already “been achieved over a one-year period by at least 6 units located at different commercial power plants in the United States.” There’s little incentive for six existing coal plants to dramatically clean up their emissions unless they’re required to (and, as explained above, the EPA would no longer be able require it). To make things even more difficult, the law would prohibit any of these six units’ emissions reductions from being obtained via a carbon-capture-and-sequestration (CCS) demonstration project that has received any government funding. “This would hamstring the EPA and tell vendors and coal producers, ‘OK, go back to sleep, ignore impending climate change, and build plants the way you did 50 years ago,’” says Hawkins.
There’s a double irony to this bill moving forward now. First, it’s happening right as the latest CO2 emissions data shows the clear need for limits on coal plant pollution. Second, a chemical spill in Manchin’s home state has just vividly demonstrated the need for more, not less, regulation of pollution. “With everything happening now in West Virginia, it’s hard to imagine there is more appetite for more leeway for polluters to dirty our air and water,” says Terry McGuire, Washington representative for the Sierra Club.
Public support for EPA regulation of CO2 is quite high, according to opinion polls. But the sponsors of this bill don’t care about public opinion or the public interest. They care about serving the coal industry, a powerful force in states such as Kentucky and West Virginia. “It’s putting interests of coal producers ahead of the climate that all Americans, and indeed all of humanity, depend on,” says Hawkins. “It’s an example of congressional chutzpah.”