So we’re a little late to the punch on this one. Let’s take a moment to catch up. Last Tuesday, March 27, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released the first-ever rules regulating carbon pollution from power plants. For those who didn’t already know this news, I should also mention this is not an April Fool’s joke, nor would it be a particularly funny one if it were.
The Tuesday announcement from the EPA represents the findings of a several year-process, beginning in 2007 with a U.S. Supreme Court decision. The ruling that got the ball rolling found that, under the Clean Air Act, the EPA could regulate greenhouse gas pollution that threatens Americans’ health and welfare by making us sick and contributing to global climate change and. But not only do they have the authority to regulate greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, they’re required to, unless they could prove a scientific basis for their refusal, the court ruled further.
The rule comes with some caveats. First, the rule only applies to new power plants, “new” here meaning “construction won’t begin in the next twelve months.” So the worst-polluting coal plants in the nation and about a dozen already permitted or being built will be grandfathered in and exempt from the rule. Second, most permitted future plants have adopted the cleaner technology that the rule would likely require. By the EPA’s own admission in the press release announcing the rules, “Even without today’s action, the power plants that are currently projected to be built going forward would already comply with the standard.”
So what does the rule exactly accomplish then? Well, if utilities were thinking of building new plants once the rule goes into effect, it’s going to cost them significantly more. In fact, the U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that no new conventional coal plants will come online after 2012. For more on that, I’ll turn you over to David Robert’s educational post “The top five things you need to know about EPA’s new carbon rule” at Grist.
You may hear some groups calling the rule “ineffective,” or “insufficient,” or even “a joke.” But, when the timing’s right, an announcement like this can turn the tides for communities who have been fighting to keep coal-fired power plants far from their homes. In Surry County, Va., residents have been engaged in a bitter battle against Old Dominion Electric Cooperative, town councils and even their own neighbors. In 2009, the utility received zoning permission from the Dendron town council and planned to break ground on the 1,500-megawatt Cypress Creek Power Station this year. Through community organizing and a lawsuit disputing zoning permission, ODEC’s pursuit of a permit was delayed. Although the town council recently reaffirmed their pro-coal decision, the coal plant would still not be permitted for several years and would now have the meet new EPA regulations — to build the plant now would make little economic sense to the utility’s board and stakeholders.
In our red tape-ridden government, as others have noted, the rule itself could be viewed as a minor improvement on Congress’s continued inaction on climate change, which we may as well remind ourselves today, is far from the elaborate prank some would have you think. Even with the new rules in place, climate change will continue to grow more serious and difficult to mitigate for future generations. The EPA will announce a second emissions rule for existing power plants, which will most likely come after the presidential election as it a “political hot potato,” in Mr. Robert’s words. For now, we should celebrate the new rule as a step in the right direction and hope the future regulation will hasten the demise of decades-old coal plants — the dinosaurs that must die off before we can begin a serious battle against climate change and address fossil fuel pollution’s negative effects on our health.