On June 2, 2014 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the Clean Power Plan, outlining steps that it will begin to implement to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. This plan is a response to President Obama’s Climate Action Plan of June 2013 as part of a push to reduce the United State’s carbon emissions by 30% by 2030. In Michigan, as well as other states, the Plan has stirred up the old energy debate between energy suppliers and environmentalists. Michigan, which predominately uses coal-fired power plants, will have to work to lower its emissions standards, possibly by switching to natural gas plants as discussed further below. Designed to make the United States a global leader in clean energy, both the 2013 and 2014 plans have set off a firestorm of criticism state and nationwide, renewing concerns over energy prices and the effects of these climate change policies on the U.S. economy..
The main provision of the Clean Power Plan is to reduce power plant carbon emissions by 30% from 2005 levels by 2030. The EPA sees this as a reasonable goal to set since advancements in production, distribution, and efficiency of energy are already underway in many states and have proven quite effective. Under this Plan, the EPA will help states create their own individualized plans that will work best for their state. States that already have plans in place will simply continue to do what they are already doing. The EPA declares that side effects of reducing carbon emissions will “Avoid up to 6,600 premature deaths, up to 150,000 asthma attacks in children, and up to 490,000 missed work or school days—providing up to $93 billion in climate and public health benefits and shrink electricity bills.” The White House believes that increasing our renewable energy standards will help the U.S. regain some credibility on the international stage when it pushes for worldwide action on climate change. With Western nations reducing their emissions and Eastern nations increasing theirs, the time may be right to take the issue to the world stage to confront this global problem. However, many parties are skeptical of the price of fighting climate change.
Naturally, a prime opposition group is energy suppliers. Suppliers warn that forcing the industry to adopt such standards will drive up prices, particularly in states that have limited renewable energy capacity. Coal burning power plants are particularly opposed to these new standards as coal is seen as one of the dirtiest sources of electricity. In fact, several New England states have cut their carbon emissions by switching to natural gas sources, which emit about half as much carbon dioxide as coal-powered plants. West Virginia, heavily reliant on coal, is a hotbed for concern over the Clean Power Plan. Several key political figures predict that the Plan will cause job losses, a sluggish economy, and as the West Virginia Record states an “unprecedented attack on coal miners and their families.” Since utilities have already begun to switch to natural gas as an energy source, the coal industry sees this as a double blow to their livelihood.
Even supporters of Obama’s plan are concerned over the push towards natural gas. Experts agree that this plan will lock in natural gas as the energy source of the future, as it is relatively cheap and cleaner than coal. Still, environmentalists don’t think that the plan goes far enough, only pushing the U.S. towards another nonrenewable energy source. These groups are also concerned over the expansion of hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, an alternative method to release natural gas that is trapped underground. Fracking is notorious for contamination of groundwater and air around the drilling site and is a major point of contention for environmental groups. These groups are concerned that Obama has effectively allied himself with the natural gas industry and that will lead to increased hydraulic fracturing throughout the United States. Since fracking is one of the reasons why the natural gas industry is booming right now, its use is necessary if utilities plan on using natural gas on a wider scale.
Supporters of the Clean Power Plan are quick to point to New England, which leads the country in reducing carbon emissions. Although this region has cut the most carbon, its economy has not suffered like opponents have predicted. In fact, the region’s economy is slightly stronger than the rest of the country. Proponents of the plan say that this is because of a boost in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and natural gas jobs. Of course this growth comes at a cost to the coal industry as mentioned above. The EPA estimates that the new rule will create 15,000-19,000 renewable energy jobs and 76,000-112,000 energy efficiency jobs at the cost of about 11,000-14,000 coal industry jobs. Renewable energy groups and companies such as Google and investment market leaders agree that renewable energy simply requires more employment than the coal sector due to the necessity of building new infrastructure and research and development. The U.S. Department of Labor announced on June 4th, 2014 that it would supply $7.5 million to continue to provide services to coal workers that had been laid off until they found new jobs. President Obama and the EPA have stated that their goal is to create clean energy jobs with easily transferrable skills that would make use of laid off coal workers. Still, no plan for creating these easily transferable jobs has been introduced yet.
Besides the job benefits, President Obama has focused on the positive health benefits that reduced carbon emissions will cause. Reducing the pollutants that we put into our atmosphere will result in cleaner air, less smog and soot, healthier children and elderly, as well as a healthier work force. A healthier work force has been a major incentive for business regulations in the past as more productive workers are seen to lessen the financial impact of new regulatory standards. On a Michigan related note, renewable energy is dependent on the manufacturing sector for parts to various renewable energy technologies. Rust Belt states may welcome this movement if it can bring back their industrial strength.
Lastly, the White House and the EPA stress that the Clean Power Plan will be flexible and will vary from state to state. This will allow the states to decide what works best for themselves and come up with an individualized plan with or without the help of the EPA. States that are heavily reliant on coal or have little to no renewable energy program to speak of were given more modest carbon emission targets so the new regulations wouldn’t put too much strain on their economies. Conversely, states that have already made excellent progress or even the 10 states that have already exceeded the 30% reduction level will be asked to continue leading the way. Further reductions on these states will provide more leeway for the country as a whole to meet the overall 30% reduction by 2030. Supports of the Plan also hope that nationwide movement on the issue will cause private investors to begin putting more capital into the green energy market, producing better technologies and creating more options for states.
The Clean Power Plan has resparked national debate over the costs and benefits of green energy. While a goal of 30% total carbon emission reductions seems lofty to some, several states have proven that this goal is very much achievable. Progress on the renewable energy front and a natural gas industry boom may lessen the impact of these new regulations and solidify the United States a global leader in green energy. Even with these costs in mind, the question we need to ask is can the world afford to wait?
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