On January 2, 2011, something amazing happened, or more accurately, didn’t happen. Despite the direst predictions of climate deniers and regulatory naysayers, the sky didn’t fall, or even begin to fall. Because on that day, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency started to roll out long-awaited Clean Air Act regulations that will eventually require major stationary greenhouse gas emitters like power plants, oil refineries and industrial facilities, to reduce their emissions. As a result, our country, and our atmosphere, will be better off, not worse.
We have long known that coal-fired power plants are the largest source of a host of environmental ills, and according to a recent Clean Air Task Force study, the cause of 13,000 deaths annually from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. They are also the source of 40% of U.S. carbon emissions, the largest industrial source of smog emissions, and produce enough coal ash annually to fill the Grand Canyon. But since coal-fired power plants are also the largest source of electric power in this country, and there is widespread recognition that coal is not going away any time soon, phased-in regulatory action is now the most effective way to keep the lights on, as well as to protect us from the worst effects of global climate change.
Public opinion polls show consistent support for EPA action in cleaning up power plant pollution, including CO2 pollution. So in the absence of federal legislation setting an economy-wide cap on greenhouse gas emissions in the near future, EPA has no choice but to act on its mandate to protect this country’s environment from a vast diversity of pollutants, including greenhouse gas emissions, by intelligent, economically-astute regulation.
Under the Clean Air Act and other environmental laws, EPA is required to issue regulations cutting SO2, NOx, toxic chemicals such as mercury, coal ash waste, and CO2 from coal-fired power plants. Right now, EPA is in the process — dictated by court order — of issuing regulations on the first four and last week, in settlement of litigation, announced its intention to propose performance standards on CO2 for new and existing power plants by July 2011, with final rules by May 2012.
The new proposed carbon performance standards should ensure that no new coal plants are built in the U.S. without greenhouse gas emissions controls, and that the existing coal fleet is gradually modernized to significantly reduce all of its harmful emissions. Setting performance standards for fossil fuel plants will provide a clear road map for America’s clean energy future, leveling the economic playing field between clean energy sources and giving electric utility companies the certainty they need to make sound decisions that can help avoid sunk investment in incremental clean up technologies. Done right, the EPA power plant regulations will drive billions of dollars of investment in new, clean energy technology and the clean up of existing power plants, which will help create tens of thousands of new jobs. But if the new regulations call for weak performance standards, not only will we fail to drive sufficient CO2 reductions, but we will also risk overinvestment in old, out-of-date plants.
At the same time, the federal government must partner with private industry in this process, as the most logical pathway to cleaning up GHG emissions from stationary sources will be the development of a robust carbon capture and storage (CCS) industry. CCS demonstration projects already exist in North Dakota, the North Sea and Algeria while new projects have been proposed in the US, China, and Europe. We must significantly ramp up these efforts, in order to accelerate the move from demonstration projects to a supply of technology vendors that offer cost-effective commercial options.
But the process cannot stop at coal. As utilities look increasingly at natural gas as a “cleaner,” more cost-effective energy source, new source performance standards should be set tightly enough to not only require capture and sequestration of GHG emissions from coal, but also from natural gas emissions. Otherwise we will never achieve the reductions necessary to stabilize our global climate.
So as we enter the New Year, instead of Chicken Little hand-wringing, we can take hope in the realization that finally, this country is taking bold action to begin to ratchet down the sources of global climate change. These gains won’t come without enormous battles, but no matter what, the sky will still be there next year, and the year after that, and may be a little bit cleaner every year.