By Greg Walcher
In high school and college, I competed in debate tournaments across the state and country. I clearly remember many occasions when a debate team’s plan would include abolishing some government program. Inevitably, the opponents would ask, “What will you replace it with?”
Only once did I hear any debater respond with, “Nothing at all. Government shouldn’t be doing that at all.” Everyone in the room was stunned, and that team lost.
Even today, most people find it hard to imagine abolishing anything. That’s why President Reagan once quipped that a government program is the closest thing to eternal life on this planet.
I couldn’t help reflecting on that a couple months ago, when the EPA released its new version of the “Clean Power Plan,” the Obama Administration’s thinly-veiled attempt to kill the coal industry. More than half the states sued, and the Supreme Court suspended the Obama plan as an unauthorized expansion of the agency’s authority under the Clean Air Act.
That was two and a half years ago, and after the election the Trump Administration withdrew the Obama plan. The entire discussion was in limbo for a long time thereafter. But now we have a new EPA and a new plan to debate. It’s called the “Affordable Clean Energy” rule.
A new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “Special Report” says we must spend $2.4 trillion (!) per year for the next 17 years to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, or humanity and our planet are doomed. But after all the scare stories and “tipping points” – and empty promises that China, India, Africa and the rest of the world would soon abandon coal, oil and natural gas for wind, solar and biofuels – the American public is growing increasingly skeptical of the fear-mongering. Many are not convinced we need a new carbon dioxide (CO2) rule at all.
Nevertheless, we always knew this new EPA initiative was coming.
The real debate stems from an earlier controversy, at the beginning of the Obama era, when the EPA declared that plant-fertilizing, life-giving, people and animal-emitting carbon dioxide is an unsafe pollutant that “endangers the health and welfare of all Americans.”
That “endangerment finding” was also widely challenged, because Congress never authorized the EPA to regulate the air we exhale as a “greenhouse gas.” Nevertheless, the Supreme Court backed the EPA’s authority to designate CO2 (which makes up about 4 one-hundredths of one percent of the atmosphere) as “dangerous,” if it concluded the risks of global climate change outweighed the trace gas’s benefits. Of course, the Obama EPA then determined that CO2 was unduly dangerous.
That ruling then formed the basis for the Clean Power Plan, a host of other regulations attacking coal, oil and natural gas use, and U.S. participation in the Paris climate treaty. Many observers were thus very guarded in their enthusiasm when President Trump withdrew from the Paris deal, and cancelled the Clean Power Plan. They realized that his new EPA has, so far, made no effort to revisit or reverse the “endangerment finding.”
That is problematic, because EPA probably cannot legally declare something to be a dangerous pollutant, but then decline to regulate it. So the concern is that if EPA does not reverse the “endangerment finding,” federal courts would eventually order a new “clean power plan” anyway. That is why the EPA has released this new plan.
However, thankfully, the new plan is nothing like the original, an outright attack on the very existence of the coal industry. Instead, EPA now acknowledges that our most abundant and affordable energy source can be used without destroying anything.
Sadly, many political leaders on both sides still think big environmental problems require federal solutions, as opposed to letting individuals, businesses or even state and local governments address them, in cases where there actually is a problem and the proposed solution would actually fix the problem.
In any event, this new EPA approach proves federal “authority” doesn’t necessarily require heavy-handed dictates from Washington.
Global Energy Institute President Karen Harbert says the new plan at least calls for “a more collaborative process that fits within EPA’s statutory authority and will result in achievable progress through more practical, state-driven programs.”
As the Clean Air Act intended, EPA now says states can develop and enforce performance standards. States have broad flexibility to consider their unique circumstances; and one-size-fits-all federal regulations rarely succeed in environmental matters.
Pittsburgh’s pollution has nothing to do with Grand Junction, Colorado or Chicago, Illinois. What works in Miami will likely not work in Los Angeles. Local leaders are better arbiters, because they know the territory better than distant bureaucracies can.
That makes a state-based approach better by definition, even if carbon dioxide were a significant problem. In fact, manmade contributions notwithstanding, climate change is governed mostly by the sun and other natural forces. Nothing humans might do will prevent those forces from changing the climate again and again, as they have throughout Earth’s history.
Nevertheless, the new rules represent an improvement over the Obama approach.
The new plan is based on what can be achieved “inside the fence” of a power plant. We shouldn’t expect or demand that a Western Colorado rural utility stop generating power because of some dubious theory about polar bears dying off in Central Canada if the Earth might warm another degree.
But at least the new approach will encourage investment in upgraded electricity generation and pollution control technologies, because such improvements will no longer automatically trigger costly permitting requirements. The previous rule discouraged such investments, defeating its own purpose.
Finally, the new rules will no longer shut down existing power plants before their useful life is over, or their financing is paid off. Such waste drove average electricity rates up 60% in many areas under Obama – hurting factories, businesses, hospitals, schools, and families that were least able to pay.
Ironically, EPA estimates that U.S. CO2 emissions will continue to decline at about the same rate (roughly 33% between 2005 and 2030) under the new plan as under the Obama plan – or under no new regulation at all. In other words, our emissions are declining anyway, not because of government intrusion, but because of improving and changing technologies.
The new EPA plan is a significant improvement. Now, let’s also abolish the “endangerment finding” and replace it with – nothing at all.
Greg Walcher (www.GregWalcher.com) is president of the Natural Resources Group, author of Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back, and a former head of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.