FRISCO — Coal companies operating in Colorado and fossil-fuel funded PR machines may deride the EPA’s proposed new emission-cutting rule as part of a job-killing war on coal, but the reality is far different.
Historically, every big new push to increase environmental protection has been met with predictions of economic doom, and proven wrong in nearly each instance. Instead, laws like the Clean Air and Clean Water Act in the 1970s revitalized communities, protected endangered species and generated ecosystem values that are hard to put a dollar price on. How much is a clean river worth, anyway?
The EPA’s new Clean Power Plan will have the same effect, said Auden Schendler, the sustainability chief with the Aspen Skiing Company who has earned a reputation as a leading green business thinker — a 2.0 version of Paul Hawken, one of the visionary fathers of the sustainable business movement.
Requiring existing dirty old coal plants to shave 30 percent from their carbon dioxide emissions is a necessary step in slowing the steady rise in global temperatures that fundamentally threatens life on Earth as we know it, Schendler said. It needs to be done, and done now, before the crisis heightens and when any response will be infinitely more costly than making a purposeful change of direction right now, he said.
Perhaps even more importantly, the Obama administration’s climate push is a signal for other countries, especially India and China, which are key to any global solution to limit and reduce greenhouse gases.
“China is looking at us,” Schendler said. “They’re choking and they know it and they need to do something,” he said, adding that the proposed regulation gives the U.S. more clout in the world arena. On their own, the proposed reductions won’t roll back temperatures. A full-on global price on carbon with emission credit trading is probably the next step, he concluded.
In its present form, the EPA rule could very well encourage state-based and regional carbon trading initiatives, a direction that could work in Colorado’s favor, according to Union of Concerned Scientists president Ken Kimmel. Since Colorado already has an impressive renewable energy portfolio, the state could take advantage of a carbon market by selling credits to adjacent states in a regional plan and re-invest the money to tilt the market away from its built-in bias toward fossil fuels. A regional carbon-trading plan for the Four Corners, for example, could be a way to decrease the impact from some of the biggest polluting power plants in the country, which foul Colorado’s air across state lines. It could also be a step to tackling serious environmental justice issues in the Native American heartland.
That approach paid off for 10 eastern states. In 2005, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont teamed up to cap and reduce power sector carbon dioxide emissions on a voluntary basis, using carbon auctions and other innovative tools to steer the region away from carbon.
Some of those states now hardly have any coal in their energy portfolios, and nearly every state in New England’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative has seen new jobs related to direct investments in a clean energy future, said Kimmel, former commissioner of the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Department.
“Colorado is a national leader in growing a clean energy economy. It’s starting with this rule at a real position of strength and the ability to offset carbon emissions with power generated by wind and solar,” said Kimmell.
If finalized and adopted, the national rule would help Colorado companies that build, install and operate wind turbines and solar power equipment, he said, explaining that the rising tide of growing national demand for renewable energy sources could float Colorado’s economic boat. More demand for wind turbines could stimulate production for Colorado-based manufacturers.
The proposed EPA rule is flexible enough to allow state-based and regional solutions to meet the 30 percent reduction target and the regional approach taken by the New England and mid-Atlantic states could be a model for other areas, he said.
The 10 states adopted a market-based approach, including a regional cap on carbon dioxide emissions and a trading program that gives states and companies room to meet the cap requirements either by direct reductions or by buying and selling carbon credits. Proceeds from the carbon dioxide allowance auctions are invested in consumer benefit programs to improve energy efficiency and accelerate the deployment of renewable energy technologies.
Finally, the agreement also includes a comprehensive tracking system for carbon dioxide emissions and for the carbon-trading scheme.
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Even before the formal release of the rule, the usual suspects made their typical back-and-forth arguments for and against it.
Coal companies claim it will raise energy prices for American households and cost jobs. In Colorado, about 2,500 people worked directly in coal mining operations in 2012, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That represents about 0.10 percent of Colorado’s workforce, with most of the jobs in in the coal mines of northwestern Colorado.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has consistently opposed nearly every effort to protect Americans from toxic pollution, so the organization’s reaction to the new EPA rule was no surprise.
“Today’s regulations issued by EPA add immense cost and regulatory burdens on America’s job creators,” chamber president and CEO Thomas J. Donohue said in a prepared statement. “They will have a profound effect on the economy, on businesses, and on families. The Chamber will be actively participating in EPA’s input process on these regulations, and will be educating our members and affiliates about their impacts,” Donahue added.
The EPA asserts the rule will actually cut energy prices for consumers by 8 percent by 2030 and predicts that job growth will outpace job losses. And, along with slowing the pace of greenhouse gas emissions, the regulations would have direct health benefits by requiring cuts in emissions of pollutants that contribute to heart attacks, asthma and other health problems, proponents say.
Existing coal power plants are by far the largest source of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, accounting for about a third of all domestic emissions. Colorado’s 12 coal-fired plants currently spew about 47.2 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.
According to Sourcewatch.org, there are 33 coal-fired power generating units operating at 14 locations in Colorado, providing about 64 percent of the state’s electrical power.
The EPA is basing its proposal on existing technologies, so power plants don’t have to install any fancy new gizmos on their smokestacks. Instead, reaching the 30 percent target will focus on using energy from coal more efficiently — by, for example, encouraging the use of energy efficient appliances and retrofitting older energy sucking buildings with better insulation.
That’s where the economic opportunities will arise, said Kimmell, the former environmental protection commissioner in Massachusetts and chair of a regional greenhouse gas initiative in the Northeast that has already achieved dramatic cuts in emissions.
Far from killing the economy, the regional push to reduce carbon dioxide emissions spurred creation of 80,000 jobs and 5,000 business just in Massachusetts between 2005 and 2014, Kimmell said.
Often such numbers are used to make inflated claims. But in this case state officials rigorously tracked job creation related to the initiative, hoping to resolve the conflicting claims once and for all. They publicly posted for anyone who wants to fact-check the fossil fuel industry’s wild job-killing assertions.
“That’s paying people to put solar panels up on schools, to go into houses and add insulation and replace light bulbs,” Kimmel said. Along with companies focused on energy efficiency, Massachusetts also saw a boom in research and development related to emission reductions and energy efficiency, he added.
The proposed 30 percent cut would help accelerate the move away from fossil fuels to a renewable energy economy in Colorado and the rest of the country, said James Newcomb, managing director of the Snowmass-based Rocky Mountain Institute founded by renewable energy guru Amory Lovins.
In a previous analysis, the institute’s scientists and economists showed that improving energy efficiency and shifting to renewable energy can help lead to even greater cuts in carbon dioxide emissions — by up to 80 percent — while saving trillions of dollars for American consumers.
That includes as much as $90 billion in direct savings on climate and health-care costs associated with air pollution from coal power plants, according to the EPA’s economic analysis of the rule.
For every dollar spent on implementing the rule, Americans will see $7 in direct health benefits, according to the agency, which estimated that pollution cuts will prevent thousands of premature deaths and asthma attacks.
The proposed EPA Clean Power Plan is at the core of the Obama administration’s efforts to slow global warming, and is far from final. The EPA could make some changes after a 120-day public comment period, including a hearing in Denver the week of July 28.
Finalization of the new regulations could also be delayed by an all-but-certain legal challenge from the fossil fuel industry and its allies, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But the EPA’s recent string of court wins on air pollution and power plant rules suggest that such lawsuits will probably end in failure.
[ Photo of a coal-fired power plant in Conesville, Ohio, by Michael S. Williamson. ]