Shortly, we are likely to see and hear much more about what jurists, Congress, and the new Administration think about the Clean Power Plan, the cornerstone of our nation’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Regardless of how the court rules—and how Congress and President Trump respond—there’s no denying the reality of climate change or the many compelling reasons to double down on the clean energy transition already underway.
Imposing limits on carbon pollution would help the President deliver on two campaign promises—to create jobs and protect clean air.
Accelerating the clean energy transition
Market trends are already driving a transition to cleaner energy. The costs of wind and solar energy are dropping dramatically, driving new renewable energy deployment that is outpacing all other new energy resources. This transition is delivering huge health and economic benefits to communities around the country.
The Clean Power Plan would lock in those gains and create a framework for continuous improvement, in the exact same way the Clean Air Act took on pollution problems in previous eras (acid rain in the 70’s, soot and smog in the 80’s, and mercury earlier this century). While these pollutants still cause problems, sometimes concentrated in low income or racially diverse neighborhoods, the CAA required significant pollution prevention measures to be taken. We need to do the same for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
How Tillerson and Pruitt view US Climate Action
As we wait to hear the DC Circuit Court of Appeals Decision, expected to be issued in the near future, we’ll be watching the actions of Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of the world’s largest fossil fuel company who was confirmed last week as Secretary of State; and the upcoming confirmation vote for Scott Pruitt, one of the state AG’s who sued to have the Clean Power Plan overturned.
As Secretary of State, Tillerson will be called upon by the foreign ministers of 190 countries to account for how the US plans to meet its commitment to the Paris Agreement. While additional policies to limit harmful global warming emissions beyond the CPP would still be needed to meet the US international climate targets, the CPP is the down payment.
Tillerson has said he would like to see the US maintain a ‘seat at the table’ of the climate talks. If the Administration is casting aside cost-effective emission reducing actions like the CPP, he’ll find that seat more than a little warm.
As part of the EPA Administrator confirmation process, Scott Pruitt conceded that carbon is a pollutant subject to Clean Air Act regulation, indicating that the CPP has a strong legal foundation. The Clean Air Act itself, and subsequent elaborations through the 2007 Mass v. EPA Supreme Court decision and a 2009 Endangerment Finding by the EPA, make this absolutely clear.
However, when asked if there was an EPA program or rule he supported, he could not or would not cite a single one—which doesn’t bode well for his leadership of the agency.
The Clean Power Plan is the Clean Air fight of this generation
I’ve had the privilege of working with clean air advocates for 20 years. I’ve heard the stories of how they successfully fought for laws that would curb the acid rain contributing to the dying lakes in the Northeast; measures to reduce the emissions of soot that settled on cars downwind of Midwest coal plants; tailpipe standards to reduce smog-choked cities; and limits to mercury that was contaminating fish in our streams.
The pattern is always the same: scientists study the problem and identify the causes; advocates petition EPA and Congress for action; and industry casts doubt about the science and fights the solutions with claims of economic collapse.
Ultimately, when all legal remedies are exhausted, industry complies at a cost far less than predicted and the promised health improvements from cleaner air are realized. My colleague Rachel Cleetus noted in her blog the benefits of EPA for real people and cited the finding that “over a 20-year period from 1990 to 2010 the Clean Air Act helped drive down total emissions of the six major air pollutants by more than 40 percent while GDP grew more than 64 percent.”
While we are far from having pristine air quality, we have a science-based process underlying the Clean Air Act that results in ratcheting down the regulations as better information becomes available and new cost-effective pollution control technologies become available.
My career has largely been spent trying to get carbon pollution treated the same way as these other pollutants. Carbon is the pollutant driving the most pressing environmental problem of our generation. Its impacts go beyond typical local and regional air pollution effects, like the aggravation of asthma and other respiratory diseases, to threaten the ‘regulator’ of the planet, the very climate that makes human existence possible.
Climate impacts demand a response
As global average temperatures rise, arctic ice melts, sea levels rise, heat waves are more frequent and last longer, and extreme weather events intensify. Scientists and advocates began calling for action to reduce carbon emissions at least as far back as the early 1990s, hoping to prevent these events from coming to pass. We are now seeing these impacts as our reality. They are becoming more common as every day passes, leaving little room for doubt that our climate is changing.
The predicted impacts are coming to pass, and despite the doubt continuing to be peddled by the likes of Tillerson and Pruitt, scientists do know—with a great deal of certainty—that burning fossil fuels is the primary cause of those impacts and they can predict, with ever improving reliability, what a warmer world would look like.
And it’s not good, it’s not something we can ‘adapt to’ and it’s coming to pass faster than expected.
Both legally and morally, this Administration is compelled to act on clean air and climate. Many local and state governments are fully committed to continuing clean energy and climate progress because it’s good for public health and their local economies, and many businesses will continue to ramp up their clean energy investments because it’s good for their bottom line.
Throwing out the Clean Power Plan won’t bring back coal. Coal is increasingly uneconomic for a variety of reasons, including cheaper alternatives like natural gas and, increasingly, wind and solar. Those market conditions will exist with or without the CPP. That’s why the Trump Administration and the Congress must do something real to help miners/coal dependent communities instead of meaningless posturing around the CPP. The clean energy transition is good for our health and is one of the fastest growing job creators. Now we need to make it work for all Americans.
The Clean Power Plan could also prevent us from becoming over-reliant on natural gas. A rush to gas would hit consumers the hardest, due to the price volatility that results from the boom and bust cycles of gas exploration. While I’m sure it is hard for an Oklahoma oil company attorney like Mr. Pruitt to believe, but too much natural gas is bad for the economy and our health.
What’s your climate plan, President Trump?
So the real question is, regardless of how the court rules, what will this Administration do to tackle today’s air pollution crisis: the need to reduce the carbon pollution that is fueling global warming?
The Clean Power Plan rule did not come about on a whim. It wasn’t rushed out the door as the Obama Administration was leaving. After decades of inaction by Congress, the EPA crafted these rules over a three year period that included consultation with scientists, state officials, power companies, and public hearings. They reviewed millions of comments from citizens around the country. Similar to healthcare, this Administration has an obligation to replace if it intends to repeal.
Before Pruitt is confirmed, Senators and all Americans are entitled to know, if not the Clean Power Plan, then what? President Trump, how will your Administration address this huge environmental and public health problem?
Correction: An earlier version of this post indicated that the Senate confirmation vote for Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State was still forthcoming. Tillerson was confirmed as Secretary of State on February 1.