Emission regulations draw jeers and cheers

Phil Castle
Phil Castle

Phil Castle, The Business Times

A federal plan to reduce carbon emissions from power plants has drawn fierce criticism from mining and business groups fearful the new rules could cost jobs and hurt the economy.

Others have praised the proposal, though, for addressing what’s considered the single largest source in the United States of so-called greenhouse gases believe to cause climate change. They also say stricter emissions standards could promote job growth in developing other energy sources, among them natural gas and solar power.

The Environmental Protection Agency unveiled plans to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The plan also would reduce by 25 percent emissions of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and particles.  In addition, the plan calls for an 8 percent increase in energy efficiency that would in turn reduce overall demand.

The proposal offers states flexibility to develop over the next two years plans to meet goals through a mix of strategies that include renewable energy standards, energy conservation and market-based emissions programs. States that have already reduced emissions through various programs, including Colorado, will be allowed to build on those efforts.

“By leveraging cleaner energy sources and cutting energy waste, this plan will clean the air we breathe while helping slow climate change so we can leave a safe and healthy future for our kids,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. “We don’t have to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment. Our action will sharpen America’s competitive edge, spur innovation and create jobs.”

The EPA plan takes aim at the estimated 40 percent of U.S. carbon emissions that come from power plants. 

In Colorado alone, some 40 million metric tons of carbon were emitted from power plants in 2012 — about the same amount as the combined emissions from more than 8 million cars.

Reduced carbon emissions from power plants could come at a cost, though, including job losses and economic harm, said Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association.

“The so-called compromise only compromises America’s energy security and damages its economy,” Sanderson stated in a news release. “As with regulations proposed last year for new generating units, these new rules are designed to write clean coal from Colorado and other states out of the energy mix.”

About 65 percent of electricity generated in Colorado comes from coal-fired power plants, Sanderson said.

In 2012, the coal industry in Colorado produced nearly 30 million tons of coal and accounted for a total of nearly 24,000 direct and indirect jobs.

Colorado coal production declined to a 20-year low in 2013, however, as several mines closed and utilities shifted generation from coal to natural gas.

An analysis conducted for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for 21st Century Energy examined the potential effects of rules to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 42 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

The analysis concluded annual gross domestic product, the broad measure of goods and services produced in the country, would decline by $51 billion, leading to an average of 224,000 fewer U.S. jobs every year through 2030. Meanwhile, electricity prices would move higher, in turn reducing discretionary household income.

Even as carbon emissions continue to decline in the U.S., emissions elsewhere have dramatically increased as foreign countries rely increasingly on coal to generate electricity, Sanderson said. Emissions have increased 90 percent in India and 170 percent in China. Consequently, U.S. reductions would be more than offset by gains elsewhere, he said. “It makes no sense for the United States to weaken its economy on policies that will produce nothing in the way of corresponding benefits to the environment.”

While the proposed reductions in U.S. carbon emissions from power plants are expected to reduce the use of coal in electrical generation, increases are forecast for the use of natural gas as well as renewable energy sources.

The analysis for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce projected that the share of coal-fired generation in the U.S. would decrease from 40 percent to 14 percent by 2030, while the share of natural gas-fired generation would increase from 27 percent to 46 percent.

David Ludlam, director of the West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association, acknowledged the proposed emissions reductions could promote a larger market share for natural gas. Ludlam criticized the piecemeal approach of the rules, though, when a more comprehensive strategy that includes all energy sources is needed. “Our success does not need to be at anybody else’s expense.” he said.

Lou Villaire, co-owner of Atlasta Solar in Grand Junction, was among the participants of a local event hosted by Conservation Colorado supporting reduced emissions.

Villaire said the proposed rules are unlikely to result in a sudden or dramatic increase in the use of solar energy in Colorado, but the solar energy industry will continue to grow in the state.

Meanwhile, a demonstration of U.S. leadership in reducing carbon emissions will encourage other countries to follow suit, he said.