“That plane only underscores why I’m here today. Carbon pollution is the public health threat of our time,” said Julie Moyle, a nurse with the Healthier Hospitals Initiative. Minutes out from testifying in favor of the Environmental Protection Agency’s new Clean Power Plan, Moyle was about to join more than a hundred members of environmental and community groups to rally in support of the rules on Denver’s nearby Millennium Bridge.
Denver is playing host Tuesday and Wednesday of this week as the EPA opens its LEED-certified doors, inviting testimony from all over the region and nation on the agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan, which would cut overall carbon pollution from existing power plants to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The proposal is billed as part of the President’s Climate Action Plan and carried out through the EPA’s rulemaking authority under the Clean Air Act.
“Power plants are the biggest source of greenhouse emissions in country,” said Stacy Tellinghuisen, a senior analyst for Western Resource Advocates who testified in favor of the plan and its achievability in the West on Tuesday.
The EPA will collect testimony — strictly limited to 5 minutes per person — on the rules in four cities this week and written comments until mid-October. The final rules will come out this time next year. After that states will have one to three years to come up with their own compliance plans based on each state’s energy needs and ability to develop renewables.
Also testifying on Tuesday was Lutheran Minister Nelson Block of Colorado Interfaith Power and Light.
“As people of faith we believe that God speaks to us through creation and that scientific inquiry is one way we discern what creation is saying to us,” said Block.
If creation is speaking to Americans about climate change, it’s certainly using a loud voice in Colorado.
State Sen. Matt Jones spent years fighting wildfires before seeing his Louisville district hit by the biblical floods last fall that destroyed 18,000 homes in and around Boulder, created $3.6 billion in damages and killed ten people.
“That’s our future. The bottom line is we oughta be doing everything we can to affect that and … you can do it cheaply compared to those costs,” Jones said. “Energy conservation and wind are cheaper than coal or gas, and big solar projects are as cheap. We have options here.”
The senator also noted that due to a decade-long commitment to relatively strict energy standards, renewables and conservation, Colorado is well on its way to meeting the EPA’s goals for the state, despite the fact that coal currently accounts for 65 percent of the state’s energy needs.
In fact Jones, like some others who testified before the EPA, would like to see the rules go further — perhaps extending beyond coal-fired power plants to include vehicle emissions and pollution from oil and gas development. Even so, most supporters of the rules agreed they are a good, even historic, first step to combating global climate change.
“The plan is also really important because it says to the rest of world that use can and will lead on this issue,” said Tellinghuisen.
Hundreds are scheduled to testify at the hearings — the only public forum for these rules in the West. Tribal leaders, state lawmakers, political activists, clergy, parents, boilermakers, rail workers, union representatives, small-town musicians — everyone has a stake.
Bob Butero, the regional director for the United Mine Workers Association, said coal miners don’t argue with the science, they know the climate’s changing and they want clean air and a safe world for themselves and their children too. But, advocating for rural workers across Colorado and the West, Butero is worried that the ends won’t justify the means when it comes to these new rules.
“Ninety-five percent of coal mines are in rural areas. When you take those jobs out it’s deviating,” said Butero, adding that the plan would only reduce the overall global emission of CO2 by less than one percent — an exchange he doesn’t feel is worth it weighed against the impact it will have on small towns and communities.
Butero’s concerns were largely echoed at a Tuesday counter rally held by Americans for Prosperity before the State Capitol.
While members of environmental group Colorado Moms Know Best rallied in support of the EPA’s plan across town, Andi Murphy of Craig, Colorado, sat beside her husband — a miner — and the youngest of her three children, opposing the same plan.
“You have to come to Craig to see what all these regulations have done and are doing to a small community,” said Murphy. She pointed out that for her town coal doesn’t just mean good-paying jobs with benefits, it means schools, roads and neighbors.
“We have already seen people starting to move out of our community, worried for their jobs, hoping to secure something better elsewhere. At least three houses on every block are for sale,” she said.
Jason Small, a Montana boilermaker who refers to caring for old power plants as the steelworkers’ bread and butter, agreed that rural communities will be hard-hit by a plan which is expected to slash the nation’s appetite for coal in half.
Small lives on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in southeastern Montana, commuting more than 100 miles a day for work. The area has three mines and two plants, pasture for cows, and not much else, according to Small. If and when the regulations go through, he worries that the mines will slow and the plants will be too expensive to upgrade, shutting down entirely.
“It’s kind of the beginning of the end,” Small said of the proposed rules. “Coal is the only dog in the fight, let’s put it that way… right where I live we run a 64 percent unemployment rate throughout the year. In the winter that peaks at about 80 percent.”
Those in the coal industry would like to see more investment in cleaner coal-burning technology, specifically in high-tech plants that can re-burn their own emissions, reducing both cost and emissions. They’d also like to see countries burning a lot of coal — like China, India and Mexico — use this technology as well.
“We’re not against the science of it [climate change],” said Butero. “But when you’re talking about reducing overall emissions not only in this country but worldwide, we need to take a closer look.”
But on the other side of the testimony room floor, supporters of the carbon-cutting plan say there’s just no more time for that kind of talk. As Sen. Jones emphasized in his testimony, “The cost of inaction has become so much greater than the cost of fixing it.”
[Photo by Tessa Cheek, video by Nate Koch.]