It doesn’t say a lot for the Clean Power Plan (CPP) that 27 states filed legal challenges against it in 2015. Or that the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay of it in February 2016. Former President Obama issued the CPP more than two years ago in an effort to demonstrate U.S. leadership in reducing power-sector carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. A majority of states subsequently opposed the plan’s intrusive overreach, though — and argued that it granted the EPA broad new powers never before identified in the Clean Air Act.
Thankfully, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt is announcing a repeal of the CPP today, and will be seeking comments from the energy industry on a potential replacement rule. Americans should hope that Pruitt will take his time in formulating a new plan, however, since it’s questionable whether any amount of CO2 reductions would actually have a meaningful impact on global climate.
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It’s projected that the CPP would have achieved only a theoretical 0.018 degrees Celsius reduction in temperatures by the year 2100. But even this minuscule achievement would have entailed massive sacrifices on the part of U.S. consumers and domestic industry. Ironically, even as the United States took on such massive obligations, China and India would still be free to build new coal plants. So any CO2 reductions on the part of the U.S. would simply have been swallowed up by emissions from new coal plants overseas.
More troubling is that the Obama administration had few qualms about granting the EPA such far-reaching control over the nation’s power grid. The result would have been an EPA trying to simultaneously safeguard America’s baseload power while also overseeing the elimination of 25 percent of the nation’s coal fleet — affecting enough power to supply 24 million homes.
Under the CPP, typical annual household electricity bills were projected to climb by more than a third in 2020 from 2012 — for an average annual increase of $680. And 45 states would have seen double-digit monthly increases in the cost of electricity. These are hard costs to swallow for working America, and it matters all the more when one considers that coal and nuclear power currently generate 50 percent of U.S. electricity. Since nuclear plants are already saddled with heavy replacement costs, the loss of more robust coal-fired power would have stretched the U.S. power grid thinner during periods of peak use.
What President Obama overlooked in launching the CPP is that market-based incentives can provide some of the same CO2 reductions without threatening baseload power capacity. Scrubbers and other emissions controls have already cut U.S. coal plant emissions 91 percent since 1970. But advanced new high-efficiency, low-emission (HELE) systems — including “ultra-supercritical” boilers — are poised to significantly reduce CO2 emissions thanks to greater thermal efficiencies. Federal incentives for such increased power plant efficiency could accomplish the same thing as heavy-handed plant closures, since every 1 percent improvement in the efficiency of a conventional coal plant yields two to three times the reduction in CO2.
What the U.S. should be doing is leading the global charge toward a higher-efficiency fleet. Boosting the average global efficiency rate of coal-fired plants from 33 percent to 40 percent would remove the equivalent of India’s annual CO2 emissions. Overall, the U.S. should embrace advanced coal plants as a reliable means of achieving baseload power, and thus set an example for developing nations as they build their own fleets.
Industrialized nations will continue to use coal to power their economies. And coal will also be lifting developing countries out of energy poverty. So when Scott Pruitt repeals the CPP, he should use the opportunity to encourage greater U.S. investment and deployment of new emissions technologies. This would ensure continued affordable, reliable power in the U.S. and aid the proliferation of smarter, cleaner plants overseas.
Terry Jarrett is an energy attorney and consultant who has served on both the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission.