President Obama releases Clean Power Plan

On Monday, President Obama announced the Clean Power Plan, the largest action on climate change in our nation’s history. The Clean Power Plan addresses carbon emissions from power plans by mandating  32% reduction over 2005 emissions levels by 2030. The Clean Power Plan will also promote the addition of more clean, renewable energy into our nation’s energy profile.

Today, carbon emissions from fossil-fuel fired power plants account for 31% of our nation’s carbon pollution. Each state’s energy profile is unique. You can view an excellent series of interactive graphs about energy production at the Washington Post. In Texas, our energy profile is as follows:

  • 53% natural gas
  • 26% coal
  • 10% nuclear
  • 10% wind
  • 1% other sources

Natural gas, while still a fossil fuel, is far less pollution and carbon intensive than coal. The shift from coal to natural gas in our nation’s base energy load has more to do with economics than the environment–fracking and other enhanced oil recovery techniques have led to cheap, abundant natural gas here in the United States. Meanwhile, the economics of coal make less sense every day. On Monday, the nation’s second largest coal company, Alpha Natural Resources, filed for bankruptcy.

Even as the latest coal giant was falling, President Obama was announcing the Clean Power Plan and calling climate change one of the most significant threats to our future. “We’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it,” he said on Monday.

We are not the first generation to see a decline in mining industry jobs, which peaked at over 132,928 in 1979, according to the Mining Safety and Health Administration. The following graph in the National Journal illustrates the more recent trend down in mining jobs in two of the biggest coal states, West Virginia and Kentucky:

The decades-long decline in mining jobs has less to do with climate change and more to do with economics. So while we aren’t surprised that the National Mining Association called the Clean Power Plan “all pain and no gain” on Monday, it is important to remember that mining industry employees have been feeling this pain for decades. It takes fewer employees to blow the top off a mountain with explosives than to mine a coal seam with people, and anyone who is concerned about the future of the coal mining industry should keep this in mind. Coal companies have done far more to eliminate mining jobs than the Clean Power Plan will.

As the Clean Power Plan reduces carbon pollution from power plants, it will also have huge impacts beyond simply addressing climate change. This is because cleaning up our dirty power plants (particularly coal plants) will eliminate sulfur, particulate matter, and many other toxic air pollutants that are impacting our health today. All told, the Clean Power Plan is estimated to bring health co-benefits by avoiding:

  • 3,600 premature deaths
  • 1,700 heart attacks
  • 90,000 asthma attacks
  • 300,000 missed work days and school days

At Air Alliance Houston, our interest in some clean air rules is often in their health co-benefits. While we certainly agree with President Obama that we must act on the threat of climate change in order to protect future generations, the work of our organization is to address the harmful air pollutants that are affecting our lives today. This is one reason we were disappointed when the Supreme Court struck down the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard. That rule would have provide $4 to $6 million a year in direct health benefits by reducing hazardous air pollutants, and another $37 to $90 billion a year in health co-benefits by reducing other pollutants such as particulate matter and sulfur dioxide.

The Clean Power Plan is less lopsided, with anticipated climate benefits of $20 billion and additional health co-benefits of $14-34 billion. The Clean Power Plan, like the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard before it, will undergo years of protracted litigation. We can only hope that this important rule will come out of the other side intact. Our future, and our children’s future, and our grandchildren’s, depends on it.

You can learn more about the Clean Power Plan and climate change at https://www.whitehouse.gov/climate-change.