The best that can be said for the Environmental Protection Agency’s new plan to loosen restrictions on coal-fired power plants is that it will probably never be put into practice. States are expected to sue, rightly, because the proposal fails to comply with the Supreme Court’s 2007 demand that the EPA responsibly regulate U.S. carbon emissions.
The EPA itself acknowledges that its plan would not only increase carbon emissions but also lead to up to 1,400 premature deaths annually.
Unfortunately, the plan’s inevitable failure to launch means the federal government’s longstanding policy of doing nothing to curtail emissions from the power sector will continue. The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan meant to lower those emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, by encouraging the shuttering of coal plants. But it, too, was held up in court after 27 states charged that the plan overstepped the EPA’s authority on greenhouse gases.
Happily, the marketplace has taken its own action against coal. With the price of natural gas, wind and solar power falling steadily, power plant owners have closed or announced plans to close 270 coal plants nationwide — more than half the total — since 2010. (This progress been encouraged by the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, which is funded by Michael R. Bloomberg.) The country is on track to lower carbon dioxide emissions 28 percent by 2030, close to the Clean Power Plan target, with no EPA power-sector rules in force.
True, it doesn’t help that President Donald Trump is doing all he can to stave off coal’s inevitable decline. In addition to the EPA’s new, doubly misnamed “Affordable Clean Energy” proposal, the president’s Energy Department is pushing a separate strategy to force electricity-grid operators to buy power from coal plants that are at risk of closing — all in the name of national security.
Of course, if national security really were the issue, slowing climate change would be of paramount urgency. As the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere rises beyond levels not seen for 800 millennia, as sea levels continue to rise and the Northern Hemisphere finishes up another deadly hot summer, the U.S. needs to push harder to curtail emissions.
President Trump is not alone in his failure to exercise responsibility. Congress has pushed away sound proposals to enact a carbon tax — the simplest way to cut emissions. With a carbon tax, fuels for electric power and transportation alike would be priced to account for the damage they do to the atmosphere. Businesses could find the most efficient ways to phase out coal, oil and other high-carbon options.
Americans can be thankful that power markets — along with cities, states and businesses — are helping lower carbon dioxide emissions. And they can hope that one day the federal government will join the fight.