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Obama’s “Burdensome” Carbon Dioxide Regulations Require Little from Northeast

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Last week, President Obama released regulations to reduce carbon dioxide pollution from coal-fired power plants. The reaction among many Republicans was that the plan to reduce greenhouse gases was heavy-handed and would trigger a spike in electricity bills -- and possibly blackouts.

“Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader who is from the coal producing state of Kentucky has already been a very, very vocal opponent of this,” Fox News reported. “In fact he wrote all 50 governors urging them to reject these kinds of EPA regulations. He called them ‘extremely burdensome’ and ‘costly.’”

How burdensome would Obama’s Clean Power Plan be, exactly?  Well, the regulations require a 32 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions nationally by 2030.  But that number is based on a starting point of 2005.  Emissions from power plants have already fallen by 16 percent in the 10 years since. That means the electric utility sector would only have to trim its carbon pollution by another 16 percent over the next 15 years – or, by about one percent a year. That’s less than the rate of decline that has already been underway for a decade.

Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the Obama Clean Power rule is actually very modest.

“Well, the good news is we’re already about halfway toward that goal already,” Kimmell said. “So we basically just have to continue along the track we’re already on to get to that 32 percent, which is great.”

Greenhouse gas pollution from power plants is already falling in the U.S. not because of regulations, but because of the free market.  The rise of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas has made it a cheaper fuel than coal.  Burning natural gas produces about half the carbon dioxide pollution as coal – although fracking also releases methane, which is bad for the global climate.

The rise of fracking – not Obama’s regulations – dug a grave for the coal industry.  Alpha Natural Resources, the nation’s fourth-largest coal company filed for bankruptcy last week, following the bankruptcies of several other mining companies.

The new EPA regulations impose different reduction targets on different states depending on their use of coal. This means that states like Kentucky and West Virginia that have been slower to shift to cleaner fuels will have to cut their pollution a lot more than states like Maryland and Massachusetts, which have already begun to transition.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the states that were already making some progress – but maybe, arguably not as much progress as we need in the face of rapid global warming – those states, including frankly Maryland and Virginia, and a lot New England states, basically don’t have to do anything under this current rule,” said Mike Tidwell, Founder of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Maryland got out ahead of the EPA regulations a decade ago.  In 2005, state lawmakers passed a law called the Maryland Healthy Air Act that required the state to join a regional coalition of eastern states that imposed reductions on carbon dioxide pollution from power plants.

The nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) provided a preview of what the rest of the nation will have to now do under the Obama Clean Power Rule. RGGI a cap-and-trade system.  Power plants that burn coal must essentially pay fees by buying pollution “allowances” on an open market. These fees are then used to lower consumer electric bills and pay for clean energy programs, like insulating homes and installing solar panels.

While critics claimed that cap-and-trade would raise electric rates and cause blackouts across Maryland, in fact, the lights have stayed on, pollution has declined, and bills for consumers have declined 8 percent over the last decade.  

A Boston-based consulting firm called Analysis released a report last month that concluded that RGGI created 14,000 jobs in the Northeast over the last three years, and saved consumers $460 million in lower electric bills.  The lower costs came from energy efficiency measures and customer rebates funded by RGGI.

 “When you look at the actual impacts and the impacts on consumers the implementation of the RGGI program generated ultimately lower electricity costs  and positive net economic benefits throughout the region,” said Paul Hibbard, an Analysis Group vice-president and co-author of the study.

Clean power turned out to be the opposite of the catastrophe that had been predicted.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.