Monday came, the Environmental Protection Agency delivered the Clean Power Plan, and the world didn’t end.
The folks of Hampton Roads were promised cleaner air and water, and perhaps the slightest intimation that Washington intends to deal with the greenhouse gases warming the planet and raising the seas.
But the world was still here on Tuesday. The lights flashed on as usual.
You couldn’t tell, though, from the statements rising from the offices of state and federal Republicans, chambers of commerce, coal companies and their friends. In that world, not only had a war been declared on coal and jobs, but electricity prices were rising on rockets that were causing the sky to fall.
House of Delegates Speaker Bill Howell’s statement was typical: “The EPA rule released today is not only another example of an overreaching federal government, but more importantly it will drive up energy costs for hardworking Virginians and further damage our already struggling economy.”
There’s little evidence for any of that, but no Virginia politician has ever lost votes by attacking Washington. But Howell did find himself outside the bounds of Dominion Resources, the state’s largest utility and political contributor:
“The compliance targets for Virginia have moved in a positive direction that fairly recognizes the role of natural gas generation in reducing emissions,” said Thomas F. Farrell the utility’s chief executive. “The administration missed an opportunity, however, to provide appropriate incentives to ensure the viability of the existing nuclear fleet that is critical to meeting the goals of the Clean Power Plan.”
The truth is nobody can predict with any certainty what the ultimate consequences will be of the president’s Clean Power Plan, aside from clearer skies and fewer pollutants. There’s a strong argument that it will eventually yield lower-cost electricity as part of a transition to cheaper fuel. But all of those effects will take time.
The result of years of wrangling and public involvement, the CPP sets new standards for greenhouse gas emissions, customized for each state, based on their progress and energy mix.
The overarching goal is to reduce carbon dioxide pollution from power plants by 32 percent from 2005 levels. That’s a somewhat bigger reduction than draft rules suggested; the targets in Virginia were slightly relaxed.
But it’s not as if the CPP will eliminate the use of coal. The EPA says that if the 2030 goals are reached, coal will still make up 27 percent of projected power generation; natural gas will provide 33 percent. In 2014, coal provided 39 percent of the nation’s electricity; natural gas provided 27 percent.
In other words, the sky is supposedly falling over a few percentage points, as well as a few more solar and wind arrays.
Coal production in Virginia has fallen almost every year since 1990, and the CPP bears no blame for Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources’ recent decision to file for bankruptcy protection.
The coal company was hobbled by its 2011 purchase of Massey Energy, a move that saddled Alpha with debt and left it feeling the pinch as global market forces — particularly demand in China — diminished the profitability of coal.
The nation’s utilities were already moving away from coal because it is both much more expensive and environmentally destructive than natural gas. The CPP will accelerate that move. Slightly.
But the plan will also, and substantially, help the United States speak with greater authority on both pollution and climate change, which are global problems on which America has been silent for too long.
That silence can change with the Clean Power Plan, and it should.