With the Obama administration preparing to release its groundbreaking rules for carbon pollution at existing U.S. power plants this coming Monday, there's already a great deal of discussion and debate swirling around. Some of that discussion is the usual, unfounded hysteria and falsehoods from predictable quarters (e.g., the Chamber of Commerce), and should be treated with the scorn and mockery it deserves. In contrast, we strongly recommend a New Republic article by Jonathan Cohn, "Obama's New Rules for Coal Plants Are a B.F.D. The Ensuing Political Fight May Be Even Bigger," as it provides an excellent overview of what's happening and why. Here are a few key points from the article:
- On Monday, June 2, the EPA "will formally propose rules for carbon emissions from existing power plants." This is crucial given that "about one-third of domestic greenhouse gas emissions, according to official estimates, and most of that comes from coal plants."
- The reason EPA, as opposed to Congress, is doing this, is because Congress has not passed comprehensive energy and climate change legislation, with the U.S. Senate having failed to do so in 2009-2010 after the U.S. House of Representatives passed a "cap-and-trade" bill.
- EPA action isn't optional, it's mandatory: "The Clean Air Act of 1970, first signed into law by Richard Nixon and then amended twice, requires the EPA to regulate pollution that threatens public health and welfare." As such, "the Obama Administration is carrying out the intent of Congress, as expressed in previously enacted legislation."
- What the EPA regulations are likely to do is "give the states a target for emission reductions, and then a deadline by which that state’s emissions must meet the target." Most likely, the EPA will "strike a middle ground -- by offering up some models for emissions reductions but giving states freedom to come up with alternatives."
- What will this do to the cost of electricity? This is important to quote at a bit more length:
It all depends on how you and our utility react. If you find ways to use less electricity—whether it’s as simple as turning off more lights or as complicated as putting in new insulation—then your bill can stay the same or come down. And with the price of renewables like solar coming down, utilities may find it cheaper to shift away from coal anyway.
Most important of all, doing nothing about carbon emissions imposes its own, very real, and very significant costs. It costs money to clean up after natural disasters...
The NRDC has actually put a number on the savings that its proposal, or something like it, would generate. According to its latest estimate, the net savings to society would be between $25 and $53 billion in 2020. You don’t have to take those figures at face value to think that, on balance, regulating power plant emissions will save more money than it costs.
It's important to emphasize that we'll pay less for fossil fuels because we won't use as much of them (hopefully, at some point, we won't use them at all). In addition, we'll pay less to clean up the mess those fossil fuels cause to our environment and our health, both of which are enormous costs. Finally, by spurring more energy efficiency, it's quite possible that we'll end up paying less for energy overall, even as the cost of fossil fuels goes up as they take into account the tremendous costs they impose on the environment and on human health and wellbeing. That's good news all around.