EPA's proposed carbon rule is reasonable and necessary

June 3, 2014 

President Barack Obama’s landmark accomplishment has been passage of the Affordable Care Act, but this week his administration proposed a second major health initiative: an ambitious plan to cut carbon dioxide pollution 30 percent by 2030, compared with 2005.

The proposal to reduce carbon emissions from power plants is part of the president’s effort to fight climate change, but the immediate effect would be a reduction in the amount of pollution Americans breathe.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s administrator, Gina McCarthy, said the rule should be adopted “for the sake of our families’ health and for our kids’ future.”

In North Carolina alone, power plants released 53 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2012, the EPA said. The proposed rule would cut emissions by an average of 30 percent, but the required percentage drop would be larger in states with lower pollution levels. In North Carolina, the reduction would be 40 percent by 2030. North Carolina utilities are almost halfway to that goal, thanks to cleaner coal-fired plants and the increasing use of plants fueled by natural gas.

Benefits far outweigh costs

Between clearing the air and slowing climate change, the rules will offer health and economic benefits that will far outweigh the cost of compliance. By the EPA’s estimate, the proposal would carry an annual cost of $7.3 billion to $8.8 billion, but it would produce public health and climate benefits of $55 billion to $93 billion a year by 2030.

The Obama administration, clearly learning from its experience with the ACA, has drawn the rules with an emphasis on flexibility. It pushed back the starting point for measuring reductions to emission levels in 2005 and pushed out the target dates for compliance.

Its 645-page proposal also gives states leeway in how they achieve compliance. States can comply, for instance, by increasing energy efficiency or using more renewable energy sources.

Unfortunately, this is a good rule for North Carolina that comes at a bad time for North Carolina’s environmental regulation. The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources under Republican Gov. Pat McCrory has been focused on reducing regulations instead of pollution. There are indications that DENR may resist all or portions of the EPA proposal. The governor would be wise to avoid foot dragging and instead pursue the targeted emission reductions as good for the state’s people and its emerging renewable energy industry.

Baseless fear-mongering

The new rules were issued using EPA’s authority under the 1970 Clean Air Act and do not require congressional approval. But that has not prevented predictably overheated opposition from some in Congress or candidates for congressional seats in coal-dependent states.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, called the proposal a “dagger in the heart of the American middle class and to representative democracy itself.” McConnell repeated power industry claims that reducing carbon emissions would mean higher utility rates and would eliminate jobs. But this is baseless fear-mongering. The rules are a reasonable response to immediate health concerns and long-term climate issues.

Duke Energy, North Carolina’s primary source of electric power, said it is reviewing the proposal.

Ultimately, less reliance on coal will improve energy efficiency and help the health of not only the nation but also the nation’s economy. In North Carolina, for instance, it will spur the development of renewable energy. The solar energy industry is already booming in North Carolina, and the state has one of the nation’s better wind resources in the mountains, along the coast and offshore.

The EPA’s McCarthy noted that pollution reduction standards are not contrary to economic growth.

“Over four decades, EPA has cut air pollution by 70 percent, and the economy has more than tripled,” she said. “Climate action doesn’t actually dull America’s competitive edge, it sharpens it.”

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