Thursday, June 5, 2014

EPA and Obama Administration's Clean Power Plan is a Good First Step, But Only a First Step

This week the Obama administration, via the US EPA, released its long-awaited climate rules under the name "Clean Power Plan." The rules are mandated by Congress and the authority confirmed by the US Supreme Court. In short, EPA is required to take action by law.

As with all major rules issued by EPA, the Clean Power Plan is a proposed rule and will be open for public comment for some time. All comments received will be assessed and addressed by EPA prior to issuance of a final rule. Given the substantial impacts on our climate system and the already aggressive attacks on the rule by partisans and lobbyists, it will be a long time before this rule is made final.

The EPA has done a rather good job of communicating the science. We know that they spent many years talking with states, community leaders, businesses, and other stakeholders garnering information on needs, options, and concerns. In the weeks prior to the release of the proposed rule, the administration helped get the word out about what the rules were, and were not. That helped the public understand better when the rules, and the inevitable misrepresentations of the rules by lobbyists, were finally released. EPA even put out a short video to put the rules in context:

The overall goal of the Clean Power Plan is to reduce the amount of carbon pollution emitted into the atmosphere. Carbon pollution is the major cause of global warming, and action to reduce carbon in the oceans and air is absolutely necessary. And it's necessary now. The Clean Power Plan seeks to reduce carbon pollution by 30% by the year 2030, with substantial reductions occurring by 2020.

Rather than simply dictate how this will be done, the Clean Power Plan allows each state to determine how best to achieve the goals, and the specific goals are different depending on the circumstances of each state. The rules will lead to a reduction in reliance on carbon-dirty energy resources like coal, oil and natural gas (especially the former) and an increase in more sustainable renewable energy resources like solar, wind, and hydroelectric.  How this happens is up to each state. They may:
  • make improvements in efficiently directly at the power plants
  • increase energy from renewable sources
  • generate more clean energy
  • expand programs promoting energy efficiency and conservation 
None of this will make coal go away, nor will we suddenly clean up the atmosphere and stop global warming. But it's a good start. By 2030 our reliance on fossil fuels will have lessened, though we should still expect about a third of our electric power to still come from coal at that time, with another third from natural gas. Renewable sources of energy should gain market share to reach approximately the same 30+% by 2030. Unless we can do better, which we most likely will do.

As a proposed rule, all of this will no doubt be sharply debated for months to come. It's critical that debate be based in fact, something the lobbyists and partisans have already shown an unwillingness to do. Still, the fact that man's activities are warming our planet, and the resulting impact on the quality of our lives, is absolutely certain, means we have to start taking action now. The EPA and Obama administration, under authority given to them by the laws passed by Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court, have taken the first step. It's up to the rest of us to continue taking additional steps forward.

More information on the proposed rule and the Clean Power Plan can be found on the EPA website.

For those interested in the legalese, the full 645-page rule can be downloaded as a PDF here.