The Obama Administration unveiled what will be looked back on as one of its marquee domestic policy rollouts earlier this week, a set of new emissions regulations on our country’s power plants. These plants account for almost 40 percent of U.S. emissions, a significant enough chunk to attract federal regulatory attention, and the new rules set out by the Environmental Protection Agency will force states to put in place plans to reduce average plant emissions (unit of carbon dioxide per unit of electricity) 30 percent by 2030 from their levels in 2005. It’s a bold move—the boldest American policy yet to address climate change—and not surprisingly it’s set off a storm of controversy of corresponding size.
While polls show the American population is generally in favor of the direction in which these new emissions rules are pushing the country, politically there’s plenty to quibble about. Many on the right are concerned with the effect the new rules will have on the U.S. coal industry (and some coal-state Democrats must understandably feel like they’ve been hung out to dry by the President ahead of this year’s midterm elections). Coal accounts for nearly 40 percent of American power, and it’s just about the dirtiest fossil fuel around. As such, coal-fired plants are square in the sights of these new EPA restrictions, and while the EPA believes coal will still make up 30 percent of our country’s energy mix in 2030, a 10 percent reduction will cut jobs and economic prospects in coal mining communities even as it cuts the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Cutting out coal will have other costs, too. There’s a reason why countries around the world rely so heavily on what everyone knows is a dirty energy source: It’s cheap. In most places, switching away from coal is expensive, and that is certainly true in the United States. In its report, the EPA believes these costs will be offset by efficiency gains, and that electricity bills will actually be lower in 2030 under these new rules than they are today. Forgive us if we’re a little skeptical of that optimistic prediction, which relies on the assumption that there’s enough to streamline in the power-producing process to offset the costs of switching to more expensive sources.
Forgive us also for being cynical; presumably a lot of those efficiency savings would slash the cost of coal-fired electricity, too. It will cost consumers money to move away from coal, and happy-clappy green propaganda can’t change the facts.
More compelling is the argument that a coal phase-out will have measurable public health benefits in the form of cleaner air to breathe and, therefore, fewer associated respiratory problems. The EPA estimates these savings could rise to as much as $59 billion in 2030. This is a serious point, and it’s one that even global warming skeptics can acknowledge.
The green left, of course, wants stricter and less flexible regulations and they want them to take effect yesterday. Some on the right object to the designation of CO2, a naturally occurring substance that is essential to life and that every human being exhales day and night, as a “pollutant” and therefore something that the EPA can regulate. There are legitimate concerns that power-hungry do-gooder bureaucrats empowered to control CO2 emissions will start regulating everything that produces CO2, from factories to racehorses, to create an ever tighter and ever more dysfunctional regulatory web that, however useful the initial power rules might be, will ultimately strangle economic growth.
Time no doubt will tell; the EPA will listen to public comments before drafting a final version of its proposal next June, and in the intervening months we’ll learn more about the details of the 645 page draft policy.
We are withholding judgment on the EPA rules until we can tell exactly what the plan is, but it’s worth noting that the EPA story is anything but the kind of total victory that the green movement seeks. There is one thing and one thing only that made the switch away from coal possible: fracking. Without the huge new supplies of natural gas, one of the lowest-emitting fossil fuels, the U.S. would have no feasible way to escape its dependence on King Coal.
In other words, for greens to win on coal they have to lose on fracking. Your typical environmentalist has a deeply ingrained impulse to fight any kind of extractive process aimed at producing any imaginable fossil fuel, and that bias makes it difficult to see the fracking boom for what it really is: an environmental triumph on a scale solar and wind can only dream of.
This uncomfortable truth isn’t unusual. For greens to really bend the carbon curve, they will have to lose their war on nuclear power, an effectively zero-emissions energy source. Shale gas is enabling Obama to begin the transition towards a more sustainable energy mix, but it has a very important drawback in common with coal: There’s a finite amount of it. Fortunately, next-generation nuclear technology is fast making its way down the pipe, and promises to provide consistent and safe baseload electricity with negligible emissions. Renewables, those favorite green options, can only satisfy peak demand; that is, due to the intermittent nature of solar and wind power, these energy sources can only act as the gravy on our energy entree. Nuclear can be the meat.
And in the long run, if greens are going to see solar power really reach its potential to change the way humanity creates and uses energy, they are going to have to lose their war on GMOs and the biological revolution: A field of genetically modified soybeans that don’t need chemical pesticides and fertilizers means that the sun’s power is replacing the oil-fired industrial plants that make those chemicals now.
But few greens will give credit where credit is due, and the official green movement will laud Obama’s decision while damning fracking as an earth-destroying practice with no awareness of their hypocrisy. We might chuckle at the irony of this self-righteous blindness to reality if the stakes weren’t so high. For the modern environmental movement, bloviating about the way the future ought to be is enough. For those who think that climate change is something more than a field for self-indulgent posturing, and for anyone who understands the vital importance of safe, abundant, and secure energy for the happiness of future generations, something more serious is required.
Too many greens take their science a la carte. Where scientific research tells greens things they like to hear, greens get all self righteous about “science deniers.” But whenever some poor scientist somewhere attacks a cherished green shibboleth, hordes of vicious and bitter green activists hurl angry accusations about the corruption of the scientific process by corporate interests.
We need solutions grounded in our best understanding of science, and we need to put those into practice. We need fracking, just like we need nuclear, just like we need GMOs. And we need an environmental movement that is realistic, balanced, and committed to the needs of human beings.
So: to save the planet, beat the greens. That is the paradoxical situation green anti-science bigotry puts us in: for green goals to be met, the green movement must often fail.