A Flawed Climate Plan Is Better Than None
The Obama administration's Clean Power Plan was never the best way to lower U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions. A national tax on carbon dioxide emissions would have been far simpler and more effective. By making sure that all fuels are priced to account for their effects on climate, it would have let the market find the most efficient ways to cut emissions.
Yet with Congress unwilling to impose such a tax, the Clean Power Plan was a worthwhile effort. Doing away with it now, as Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt has proposed, will be a blow to the climate and public health.
The Clean Power Plan, held up in court since early 2016, aimed to trim greenhouse-gas emissions in the electric-power sector, which produces 29 percent of the total. By requiring states to restructure their power portfolios and burn less coal, it was expected to cut emissions by a third by 2030 (compared with 2005). It would have cut smog, too, preventing thousands of early deaths from lung disease and protecting tens of thousands of children from asthma.
Granted, coal is losing market share to cheaper natural gas anyway; states and cities have set their own more ambitious goals to lower emissions; and grassroots efforts like the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign (supported by Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News) are already shuttering coal plants. Nonetheless, progress would be faster with the Clean Power Plan in place.
Pruitt isn't offering an alternative strategy, though he might push power companies to make their coal-fired plants work a bit more efficiently. He also hasn't offered a rationale for stepping back from the EPA's legal duty to regulate greenhouse gases. He has asserted that some levels of particulate matter spewed into the atmosphere by coal-burning power plants aren't that dangerous, while maintaining that the costs of complying with the plan are four times higher than the Obama administration calculated. These claims are at best questionable, and ensure that Pruitt's move against the Clean Power Plan will be delayed for years by state lawsuits.
Meanwhile, expect coal plants to keep closing and the power industry to suffer years of needless uncertainty. Even if there were no legal obstacles, the process of repealing the Clean Power Plan would take months, as the public is given time to weigh in. This course works badly for everybody.
Congress should save the EPA, the courts and the energy business endless time and trouble -- not to mention advancing the interests of the people it represents -- by showing some courage and dropping its resistance to the smart way to confront this problem. A carbon tax isn't feasible? Make it feasible by reflecting on the uselessness of the current approach.
--Editors: Mary Duenwald, Clive Crook.
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