The Clean Power Plan Has Already Accomplished One of Its Most Important Tasks

March 28, 2017 | 3:53 pm
Momentum on the path to our clean energy future. Credit: Dennis Schroeder, DOE/NREL
Julie McNamara
Senior Energy Analyst

Tuesday’s attack on the Clean Power Plan (CPP) did not exactly come as a surprise. Since the day President Trump was elected, the rule’s fate has seemed near-well sealed—when CPP lawsuit ringleader Scott Pruitt was confirmed as EPA administrator, all lingering doubts were reduced to specifics about how and when. Well here we are, and now we know.

But here’s the thing. Though the administration spoke of “relieving the burden” of the rule, and though there had been much braying when the CPP was first announced, there has been a conspicuous absence of utilities leaping to change course after the lifting of the (supposed) crushing yoke of the CPP. Today, in fact, most utilities seem much as they did yesterday: increasingly comfortable with, and confident in, the idea of serving electricity in a carbon-constrained world.

It turns out that Tuesday’s actions relating to the CPP may well be moot: while the administration is clamoring to throw things in reverse, the power sector itself is pushing full-clean ahead, kick-started in part by the CPP but now rolling with a momentum all its own. More policies will be needed to accelerate the transition, but this train has undoubtedly left the station.

The CPP is all-important, unimportant, and somewhere in-between

As my colleagues and peers have made clear, a rollback of the rule would hurt our country, from the environment, to public health, to businesses, to foreign policy. It would also ignore the tremendous value derived from the very existence of a mechanism that can continue to push our climate goals forward.

We must fight hard for the EPA to do the job it is legally required to do: put limits on carbon emissions from power plants and other major emitting sources that are contributing to climate change and harming our health and welfare.

At the same time, others importantly highlight that market forces are currently pushing the deployment of renewable resources to unprecedented levels. And where there exist market gaps, state policies have been skillfully bridging them, using tools like renewable portfolio standards and support for distributed generation. Independent of any power plant rule, an enormous amount of progress is being made.

But beyond the debate about the relative importance of the CPP in driving near-term emission reductions, there is one clear benefit that the rule has already provided and that no rollback can now reverse: the triggering of a fundamental shift in power sector perspectives. By requiring stakeholders to consider what it might mean to walk a cleaner, greener energy path, the CPP has illuminated for a wide-ranging audience that the route was not only eminently achievable and affordable, but also beneficial.

Once you can see that future, there’s no more pining for the past.

Why did things change? The CPP got people talking… and listening

Since the CPP was first proposed in June 2014, the rule has generated significant discussion at all levels of society. The initial draft generated more than 4.3 million comments, an incredible volume for a rulemaking. And while everybody had an opinion—too weak, too strong; readily attainable, impossible to achieve; an economic boost, an economic drag—it also meant that stakeholders were engaged. This was in no small part facilitated by the agency itself, which went to tremendous lengths to conduct public hearings and listening sessions and trainings, and provided a range of tools and guidance.

Over time, as quick-takes evolved into deeper considerations of impacts and outcomes, stakeholders continued to be repeatedly exposed to the CPP debate. From joint discussions between energy and environmental regulators, to regional collaborations of regulators and power generators and environmentalists, to assessments by (and between) regional energy markets, to collaborations between federal energy bodies, discussion and analysis was unrelenting.

This, in turn, meant growing comfort and fluency, even when unintended.

As a result, though the rule’s fate has been dangling in legal limbo since last February, stakeholders from across the political spectrum have long-since acquiesced to the motivations driving it—a noted departure from when the rule was first proposed. Here, a few:

Clean energy means jobs.

  • “We’ve always had a point of view at Southern that there’s a reasonable trajectory in which to move the portfolio of the United States to a lower carbon future. There’s a way to transition the fleet now.” Tom Fanning, CEO, Southern Co.
  • “And to me, a utility commissioner isn’t doing their job, given that they make a long-term projection, if they’re not including resource diversity that includes non-carbon resources.” Ted Thomas, Chairman, Arkansas Public Service Commission
  • “We do recognize that if it’s not this, it’s going to be something else, because the Supreme Court has given the EPA the jurisdiction to do something [to control greenhouse gas emissions].” Tom Heller, CEO, Missouri River Energy Services
  • “[Under the Clean Power Plan] there has been struck a comfort level among many states and between stakeholders with regards to how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. […] I think there are states who feel far more comfortable engaging in regional solutions than they ever were before the Clean Power Plan was developed.” Bill Becker, Executive Director, National Association of Clean Air Agencies

Keeping our eyes on the clean energy horizon

Tuesday’s claw-back of the CPP came as part of the broader Energy Independence Executive Order, which establishes a policy directive to increase US energy independence, including by winnowing out policies that present “impediments” to domestic energy production. In the process, the order seeks to lay waste to a bevy of climate and clean energy policies, including the CPP.

But though its scope is far-reaching, the order still managed to fail to catch the biggest impediment to domestic energy production of all: this administration’s pitifully small vision of what our nation’s energy future can be.

As we move forward—clean energy resolve intact, federal clean energy rulemaking in question—it’s critical that we keep supporting those states, utilities, and regulators that see the bigger picture, and keep making the case for those who don’t.

Because here’s the thing: while the Trump administration may have a blinkered view, the vast majority of those implicated by the CPP now see the full clean energy horizon, and have no interest in looking back.

Critically, as the map below illustrates, they also have the strong support of the American public—a new study shows over 80 percent of Americans support funding research into renewable resources, three-quarters support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant, and more than two-thirds support strict carbon pollution standards for coal plants, even if it costs them more.

And so we persist.

Seventy-five percent of U.S. adults believe that carbon dioxide should be regulated as a pollutant. Here, rates are displayed at the state level. Credit: Yale Climate Opinion Maps (2016)