photo by Rennett Stowe
Running the world’s largest economy is a big responsibility. If we are going to make bad choices, we need to make them in the best possible way.
This is the perspective from which we should look at the Environmental Protection Agency’s recently proposed rules on carbon emissions. The Obama administration has cast these rules as a way to clean the air, reduce the amount of carbon dioxide burdening the atmosphere, slow global climate change and protect public health.
Clearly the new rules will not accomplish all of these goals. Whether they accomplish any, and at what cost, remains to be seen. About the best we can say for the EPA proposal is that, given the political and policy priorities the proposed rules embody, they may not do much harm - even if they fail to accomplish much good.
In a nutshell, the EPA rules (if implemented) mean we will burn less coal in the United States. In and of itself, this is neither good nor bad news, except for someone in the business of selling coal. Since most coal burned in this country generates electricity, the question is whether we are going to get an equal amount of electricity from other sources, including conservation, as well as what those other sources will be and how much they will cost.
Supporters of the rule are certain we can make up the difference with gas, conservation and various renewable energy sources. Detractors claim implementing the proposal will cost a great deal and provide little in return. The true cost of replacements for coal-generated power remain to be seen.
None of these questions are addressed in the EPA proposal. The proposal considers one arbitrary objective - emit less carbon dioxide, principally by burning less coal - in isolation from all other interrelated objectives. Those objectives include providing economically competitive and well-paid jobs, keeping domestic electricity cheap enough to support a comfortable standard of living for most people and allowing electricity to play a growing role as a transportation fuel, since our battery-powered cars are not going to charge themselves.
The EPA did generate the required cost-benefit analyses, but as is often the case, the figures fall anywhere on the spectrum from the speculative to the specious. In particular, every number associated with the rule’s effect on climate change is essentially a lie, because changing American carbon emissions won’t change the climate one iota. Changing global carbon emissions might make a difference. But one of the effects of the EPA proposal will be to encourage the export of American coal to countries like India and China whose emissions, relative to gross national product, are far higher than those of countries in North America and Europe. Even though its economy is still barely more than half our size, China already emits nearly twice the amount of carbon from coal that the U.S. does.
A U.S. policy that rationally addressed coal’s contributions to climate change would tie reductions in coal consumption here to reductions in consumption - or at least sales of American coal - elsewhere. As an alternative, we could make it our goal to produce the cheapest electricity anywhere, reducing coal consumption abroad by out-competing it with maximum output of hydropower, wind, solar and gas, as well as finding a cost-effective way to decommission nuclear plants and permanently store nuclear waste.
But such a program would require hard choices. We would have to override all sorts of local and regional objections to nuclear storage, fracking, damming rivers, building transmission sites and erecting solar and wind farms. Is it worth it to us, to reduce carbon dioxide emissions? Thus far, we have not been willing to put any real money behind our climate talk. (I happen to think that’s a good thing, because so much climate “science” has clearly been exaggerated. But even if I agreed that the climate was the single biggest challenge facing humanity, this statement would still hold true.)
White House counselor John Podesta has said he is “fairly confident” that the EPA proposal currently under discussion will survive the scrutiny of future officeholders. He also claims it will become increasingly difficult for climate change skeptics to win national elections. Whether or not he is correct, politicians can certainly continue to do very little about carbon dioxide emissions as long as they talk the talk. In fact, that seems to be Washington’s de facto approach at the moment.
The EPA rules are perhaps a tiny step forward, because they encourage states to experiment with policy options to foster the reduced use of coal. While such incremental changes may yield incremental results, they still don’t get us very far in the absence of clear national priorities. If New Hampshire can block a project like Northern Pass, Massachusetts and Connecticut can’t tap Canadian hydropower to reduce their demand for carbon. Likewise, in Massachusetts, the Cape Wind project has yet to build a single windmill, four years after receiving federal approval and 13 years after the project was first proposed.
Ultimately the goal of the EPA’s proposed rules was a political one: to keep an administration promise to display “leadership” on climate change. That the rules are not effectively tied to climate change, and that the display of “leadership” comes without any serious policy choices beyond those asked of the states, is mostly irrelevant to the administration’s purpose.
Will the EPA rules hurt us in the long run? The reality is that we don’t know. That’s still bad policy, but better than it might have been.