In Our View: Fired Up Over Coal Plan

While critics blast stricter regulations, EPA's proposed rules are rather modest

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Despite proclamations that stricter regulations for coal-fired plants will have disastrous economic implications, a careful review of the proposed rules reveals that they are rather modest in scope.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday announced long-awaited guidelines for carbon emissions from coal-fired electricity plants, which reflexively triggered continuing debates about climate change and about environmentalism vs. industrialism. For example, the Olympia-based Association of Washington Business quickly released a statement declaring, “The proposed changes would devastate the manufacturing industry, one of the country’s leading providers of family-wage jobs, at a time we most need skilled manufacturing workers.” That statement presents a concern that must be weighed in considering the new proposals, and yet it sounds more like ideological pandering than a realistic assessment. Consider:

• The aim of the proposal is, by 2030, to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal plants by as much as 30 percent from 2005 levels. This might sound like a Pollyannaish goal, but such emissions already have dropped 12 percent since the baseline year of 2005.

• By setting the long-term goal for 2030, there is plenty of time for adjustment within an economy that already is moving toward carbon-free or low-carbon energy sources. As EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said: “We’ll spur innovation and investment, and we’ll build a world-leading clean-energy economy.”

• Once the proposal is finalized next year, states will have a great deal of flexibility in deciding how to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions.

While coal-fired electricity is not a big issue in this land of hydroelectricity, how other states deal with carbon emissions can have a vast impact upon Washington. The reality is that air pollution travels, and emissions elsewhere can affect the air quality and the health of animal life and plant life in this state.

Those effects can be profound. Existing power plants are the nation’s largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, accounting for 38 percent of such emissions — more than all cars, trucks and buses put together. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v. EPA that such emissions fall under the broad definition of the term “air pollutant” and ordered the EPA to determine whether greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health or the environment.

The answer to that should be fairly obvious. Spewing emissions into the air clearly is detrimental to public health and to the environment, and ignoring the issue should not be under consideration as a proper course of action. The new regulations are likely to spur a revamping of the nation’s coal plants, which on average have been in service 42 years and are full of inefficiencies; will trigger a move toward expanded use of cleaner natural gas to generate electricity; and will place the United States on a moral high ground in lecturing countries such as China and India about their emissions.

“For the sake of our families’ health and our kids’ future, we have a moral obligation to act on climate,” the EPA’s McCarthy said. That is the bottom line. Many naysayers dispute the notion that curbing coal-burning emissions will reverse climate change, but it’s difficult to argue that improving air quality will have a negative impact on Americans’ quality of life. As Bloomberg News wrote editorially, by 2030, “The U.S. will have provided the world an example of what can be done, not what can’t.”