Like most “major” announcements coming out of Washington, D.C., the new rules on carbon dioxide emissions are more smoke than fire.
President Barack Obama is proposing that the nation’s CO2 emissions be reduced 30 percent by 2030. But the proposal calls for state plans to be submitted after he leaves office in January 2017; plans are likely to change. And the baseline year he chose is 2005, when emissions reached a peak before dropping sharply with the Great Recession and the advent of more plentiful, less expensive natural gas to generate electricity. So the big cut would be easier to achieve, although it wouldn’t necessarily be simple or painless.
Further, the rules would set a target for each state, giving states credit for emission cuts already achieved since 2005 and allowing the states to design their own plans for meeting their 2030 target.
Montana, which has the nation’s biggest coal reserves and is an exporter of both coal and electricity, would have to reduce its CO2 emissions by 21 percent over the next 16 years to meet the EPA target Obama announced last week. Wyoming would have to cut its CO2 emissions by 19 percent, North Dakota’s cut would be 11 percent.
The new rules triggered concern for jobs at coal mines and coal-fired electric plants, which are the largest industrial sources of CO2. Those jobs are important to Montana families and the state’s economy. About 360 people work at the Colstrip power plants and more than 1,000 Montanans are coal miners.
Cleaning up the air need not put those folks out of work. It’s time to get more serious about affordable, clean coal technology. Coal is an abundant resource; in the near future, Americans should learn how to use it with lower emissions.
Energy efficiency has the potential to reduce power generation emissions more than any other strategy. Efficiency is good for electricity customers because it saves them money. Efficiency is good for generators, too, making them more competitive in the market.
Much as regulation is feared and reviled, the energy market is changing outside the regulatory framework. Several years ago, natural gas was the more expensive fuel for generating electricity and coal was king. Recently, the situation has reversed. The rich Bakken oil fields yield gas, too, so much that it continues to be flared rather than sold.
Three decades ago, an EPA rule requiring coal-fired plants to reduce sulfur emissions proved to be a bonanza for the Powder River Basin coal mines of Montana and Wyoming. That rule created the opportunity for this region’s low sulfur coal to be burned in power plants throughout the East and Midwest. Some coal mines back east closed, but the Powder River Basin mines profited.
The new challenge for Montana is to look for opportunities in the nationwide push to reduce carbon emissions. Montana must respond with a plan that recognizes the value of coal and other energy sources.
The American Lung Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and various public health groups cheered the news that CO2 emissions will be reduced. The EPA estimated its rule would prevent up to 6,660 premature deaths and 150,000 asthma attacks in children by 2030.
There are costs to both pollution caused illnesses and to arbitrary pollution regulations. The challenge is to guard against both. With good planning and aggressive research and development of more affordable clean energy technologies, we can sustain both better health and a thriving economy.
Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality director Tracy Stone-Manning hit the right note last week when she said: “We’re going to work with (the coal industry) and all of the energy industries and come up with something that is right for us, and right for electric ratepayers.”