In a previous post, I discussed President Obama’s new plan to tackle climate change. Than plan does not go far enough, but it does go farther than we’ve gone before and is an important initial step in the right direction. The centerpiece of the plan is a proposed set of EPA rules that would regulate and reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from existing coal-fired power plants.
However, the plan also goes farther than some people would like. The coal industry itself as well as Congresspeople from districts where coal is a major employer are fighting the new regulations and there is a real chance they could win. That must not happen; if political leaders do not get the support they need to fight climate change now, they might not try again for a long time.
Last post I encouraged readers to comment on the proposed rules and to talk to their Congresspeople. Now, I’m following up by explaining what the EPA’s rule-making process is, how these rules came to be proposed in the first place, and HOW readers can comment
How the EPA Works
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a body within the Executive Branch of the United States Government. The head of the EPA is not a cabinet-level position because Congress has refused to make it so, but since President Nixon created the agency most presidents have seated the head with the cabinet.
As a part of the Executive Branch, the EPA serves to execute those laws that fall within its area of responsibility. The laws Congress passes are typically too vague to be enforced, so one of the things the EPA does is to make rules that fill in the necessary detail. For example, if Congress says it is illegal to pollute, the EPA gets to decide which chemicals at what concentrations count as pollution.
Because the EPA only makes rules for laws that have already passed, proposed rules do not need further Congressional approval–although Congress can influence EPA activities by manipulating its budget. The EPA does consider public opinion, and every proposed rule is published to the Federal Register so that the public can examine it. After a comment period (which is not always the same length), the EPA alters (or sometimes withdraws) the rule so as to take public opinion into account before adding the rule to the Code of Federal Regulations.
Where the Carbon Dioxide Regulations Came From
The EPA can regulate air pollutants because Congress–by passing the Clean Air Act–said it can. However, usually we think of pollution as some kind of poison and carbon dioxide is non-toxic. Very high concentrations of CO2 can kill by displacing oxygen, but basically the stuff is inert, one of the safest substances around. So, initially, the EPA didn’t bother to regulate it. During the Bush Administration, the Agency specifically refused to regulate CO2, arguing that it did not count as a pollutant and therefore was not under the EPA’s authority.
In 2007, the US Supreme Court ruled, in Massachusetts vs. the EPA, that CO2 could indeed count as a pollutant if it was dangerous. The Court ordered the EPA to determine whether carbon dioxide can endanger public health or the environment and, two years later, the EPA admitted that, yes, CO2 is harmful.
CO2 is harmful because it is a greenhouse gas and is currently warping our climate and acidifying our oceans.
That finding means that the EPA can and must regulate carbon dioxide in order to protect the American people. Unfortunately, there is no way to burn fossil fuels for energy without releasing carbon dioxide. That’s the simple chemistry of the situation. The fossil fuel-based American economy is now on a collision course with the government’s duty to protect the nation, a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation for any political leader. Of course, the EPA didn’t create the problem–it simply noticed and admitted a problem that had existed in plain sight for decades.
However, there is some low-hanging fruit the EPA can pick. The more efficient a power plant is, the more power it can produce for the same amount of fuel–and hence the same amount of carbon dioxide emissions. A good place to start is therefore by insisting that power plants become more efficient, and that is what the EPA is doing. It has already set high standards for any new plants, but most of the nation’s existing coal-fired power plants are decades old and very inefficient. According to the new rule, these facilities will have to improve (or close).
The rule primarily effects coal-fired plants, but some natural gas-fired power plants may also have to upgrade.
How Will the New Rule Work?
The rule sets emissions targets that states can meet by requiring power-plant upgrades, by switching to natural gas-fired plants (which tend to emit less CO2 than coal-fired plants), or by focusing on sustainable energy sources and improved efficiency. The EPA will finalize the new rule next year and, after that, the states will then have a year to figure out what strategy works best for them. If any states do not come up with their own plan, the EPA will do it for them.
Do the Objectors Have a Point?
Primarily, it is the coal industry objecting to the new rules. This is not surprising. Industries don’t like being regulated because regulations make business more expensive, at least initially. However, there is no inalienable right to make as much money as possible. When a business practice or industrial process is harmful, it is right and proper that the law step in and do something about it. In one sense, some regulations are actually very good for businesses; business leaders who choose to pay extra for a good cause often cannot compete with those who are not so scrupulous. Regulation lowers the playing field so that no one has to choose between doing the right thing and staying afloat.
But there are also concerns that the new rule could cost jobs or damage the American economy as a whole. These kinds of concerns are sympathetic but do not always have much basis in fact. In this case I do not know whether the concerns are well-founded, but any harm that might be caused by winding down the coal industry is dwarfed by the harm that not addressing climate change would bring. Consider the tens of thousands of extra people flooded in Superstorm Sandy’s surge because of sea level rise due to global warming–and how a similar storm in another densely populated area, such as Boston, is only a matter of time. Consider that heat waves already kill more Americans than all other forms of natural disaster combined–plus the many more people every year year who die from other causes that heat makes worse.. I could go on.
The reason we have a government to begin with is so that we have some process whereby we can do difficult, painful things for the greater good of the country as a whole. The bottom line is that if we address climate change, we can probably afford, as a nation, to compensate the losses of the coal industry in some way. We cannot afford the losses unaddressed global warming would bring.
So, How Do We Get Involved?
Contact the EPA and comment in support of the proposed rule regulating carbon dioxide. Here is a link to detailed instructions on how to do so. They accept comments through their website, by email, by regular mail, by fax, and by hand-delivered note (really!).
Then, contact your Senator and Representative and tell them that you support action on climate change and will vote anyone out of office who attempts to block or de-fund the EPA’s regulation. If your state is considering taking its own action against the regulation, contact your state officials and tell them to stop or you will turn them out of office.
And mean it.
Our chance of winning this without the support and leadership of the government of the United States of America is very small.