EPA Climate Rules: Too Little, Too Late? (video)

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Coal power plant with smoke stacks
Coal fired power plants emit three-quarters of all greenhouse gasses produced in the power generation industry.

By: Doyle Canning

The Environmental Protection Agency announced new rules this month for regulations on carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants and an overall mandate to cut climate-heating emissions 30 percent by 2030. Nine Republican Governors have signed onto a letter to the President claiming that the plan spells major job losses; larger environmental organizations have called it “bold” while more grassroots elements say it doesn’t go far enough.

The EPA plan was largely upheld on June 23 by the US Supreme Court, which in two rulings reaffirmed for a third time the agency's power to regulate carbon under the Clean Air Act. Despite these precedents, coal producing powerhouse West Virginia has already threatened to sue and the measures will likely land in front of the US Supreme Court again soon.

 

Some 500 US coal plants produce 39 percent of all electricity, but emit 74 percent of all greenhouse gases in the power generation sector.

The EPA plan calls for carbon cutting actions to be implemented at the state level. Arizona has the second highest target for greenhouse gas reductions under the new rules, at 52 percent. In what may foreshadow the challenges of enforcing the law, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer told a reporter who enquired about her position on climate change “I probably don't believe that it is man-made" before assaulting him in 2012.

Despite the climate deniers in Phoenix, Jihan Gearon of Flagstaff, AZ says climate change is already impacting life on Navajo lands, and her organization Black Mesa Water Coalition is fighting back against what they see as the coal industry’s over use of ground water in the water-scarce high desert. Vast quantities of the region's groundwater is used to create a slurry of pulverized coal to transport it as a liquid by pipeline from mine to power plant. Gearon welcomes the new rules, as the Navajo reservation is surrounded by seven coal fired power plants, some of the largest in the western United States, which create significant adverse health impacts for residents living and working around the plants, as well as at the coalmine on Black Mesa.

Gearon believes “The only way….to transition away from this coal fired power plant on our reservation is by making renewable energy more competitive with coal…Regulations like this (EPA plan), they help us to make a renewable energy economy more possible.”

After one coal-fired power plant in the area was shut down several years ago, there was a hit to local jobs and some backlash against her environmental work. With unemployment among Navajo People at a staggering 42 percent, Gearon says that ending coal has to go hand and hand with job creation and economic development. She is part of a national coalition called Climate Justice Alliance which is proposing a project to build a commercial scale solar project on the Navajo lands already ravaged by coal mining—an example of what they call a “just transition” that can create local jobs while benefiting the environment.

It is not just activists who are the trumpeting economic benefits of clean power over coal – it is Wall Street too. In April the investment megabank Citigroup announced a new “age of renewables” in the United States, informing investors that solar and wind energy are fast becoming competitive with gas, which – since the advent of fracking has produced a glut of gas on the US market – was considered among the cheapest energy available. Citi forecasts natural gas prices going up, and says coal has essentially become too expensive to be viable moving forward, a perception that the new EPA regulations will only reinforce.

David Cash, Commissioner at the Department of Environmental Protection in Massachusetts, says that despite the hand wringing by climate detractors that these new regulations will kill the economy, the northeast region has seen a thriving economy while implementing carbon-cutting measures for years. “Since the 1990’s our economy (in Massachusetts) has grown 70 percent while we have cut emissions 40 percent in the power generation sector.” Under Governor Deval Patrick’s Global Warming Solutions Act, passed in 2008, Cash says the state has now moved to shut down all coal power and has created “clean energy jobs for everyone from architects to electricians… I’m a realist, and an optimist…(This transition) is happening faster than anyone thought.”

Meanwhile, critics from the grassroots of the environmental movement are asking the obvious question – is the transition happening fast enough? With the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in meltdown, can measures like the Clean Power Plan make meaningful progress in slowing climate change?

While Cash says 30 percent by 2030 is “on the path” to solving the problem, longtime climate activist Ken Ward (who was arrested for blockading a shipment of coal last year), said in an op-ed that a target of “30 percent emissions reduction from 2005 levels, half of which is already accomplished…ignores the reality that coal being ripped from Appalachia and Western states will simply be shipped and burned elsewhere… By any reasonable measure the plan sucks and environmentalists ought to have been first in line denouncing it as an utterly inadequate sham.” He points out that even while the Obama Administration is increasingly talking a big game about climate change, it is pursuing what it calls the “All of the Above Energy Strategy,” which includes major investments in oil, natural gas and coal that will drive catastrophic planetary warming.

There is still time to weigh in for critics on all sides with public hearings hosted by EPA scheduled for July in Atlanta, Denver, Pittsburgh, and Washington. The Clean Power Plan also has an open public comment period and will not go into effect until June 2015. The new rules will likely come under several legal challenges and be subject to pitch political battles, with the devilish details of implementation continuing to unfold in the coming years.

Kalila Barnett of Climate Justice Alliance has been fighting for the public health of Boston’s Black, Latino and lower-income communities for years, and she is cautious about celebrating the new EPA carbon regime. She warns that “The Environmental Justice movement has been…demanding for a long time that the government enforce existing laws and enact new laws that protect our communities (from coal), but I don’t think that this law goes far enough. There needs to be a larger set of climate related actions…The EPA is one important agency, but we need something on a much larger scale.”

Doyle Canning is a writer, communications strategist, and co-founder of the Oakland-based Center for Story-based Strategy. She lives in Boston with her family.

 

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