On July 17, the Portland Press Herald ran an Op Ed advocating for the Clean Power Plan (the name that has been given to President Obama’s Climate Action Plan). The Op Ed reads, “the goal of the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan is to cut U.S. carbon pollution 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Each state will be allowed to develop its own approach to producing power with less pollution, whether that means increasing energy efficiency, closing or updating coal plants or building new renewable energy systems, like solar or wind farms.”
The Op Ed then proceeds to point out that Maine has the highest asthma rate in the country (true) but that the majority of the asthma-causing pollution in the air Mainers breathe wafts over to us from coal fired plants in the mid West. Also true. One could be forgiven, then, for wondering why Maine needs to cut carbon pollution when the majority of the pollution is caused elsewhere?
The devil, as always, is in the details. Maine is not obligated to reduce carbon emissions 30% from 2005 levels by 2030. The entire US is obligated to do that, under the proposed plan. The EPA has set targets for each state. Maine’s proposed target is actually the second lowest of the 49 states subject to the plan (Vermont has no power plants that qualify as an affected Electricity Generating Unit, or EGU. Maine has four, although the EPA and the Maine DEP disagree about which power plants classify and which don’t). Under the proposed plan, then, Maine would be required to reduce its emissions by about 14% below 2012 levels.
It’s actually not entirely clear, by the way, exactly how much Maine would have to reduce. In typical bureaucratic fashion, the “goals” that EPA are proposing are not mass-based (i.e., a certain number of tons of carbon dioxide emitted. EPA’s proposed goals are a rate, as in how much CO2 per unit of electricity generated. However, it’s not even that simple. The target rate is actually the following: pounds of CO2 emitted in the numerator, and the sum of the amount of electricity actually generated PLUS the amount of electricity avoided by investing in energy-efficiency in the denominator). EPA constructed the ratio this way in order to give credit to states that encourage conservation and energy efficiency. (Update: the EPA has recently proposed to let states convert their targeted rates to a mass-based rate. How this is going to occur and who is going to make the conversion is still up in the air.)
Moreover, the proposed goals are set using a method that EPA calls BSER, or “Best System of Emissions Reduction.” This system includes four “blocks,” which include: improvements in emissions rates from coal-fired power plants (Maine has one); the replacement of coal-fired power plants with natural gas or renewable sources; and conservation. (Only the first of these, apparently, is directly under the EPA’s jurisdiction. But I’m not an environmental lawyer, so that’s about as far as I’ll go there.) That’s why some states who are large polluters have targets that seem relatively high (meaning more pollution allowed) when compared to other less polluting states that have a relatively stringent goal (Texas versus Washington, for example).
EPA does not specify how individual states should achieve their targets. They do, however, require that states submit plans detailing how they will achieve the targets and demonstrating compliance.
Here is where the bulk of Maine’s objections arise. Maine already participates in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI – see my post here) and is already on course to exceed EPA’s target. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection argues, with justification in my opinion, that Maine should not be penalized for being a “first mover,” and should, in fact, be exempted from the Clean Power Plan. (I’m not sure if I’d go that far, but I do believe Maine should be able to submit streamlined documentation.)
Others of Maine’s objections are predictable, given Maine’s power and industry mix: what about co-generation? Biomass? Hydropower? The EPA’s rules either don’t include them as eligible renewable sources or are unclear in the way they are treated.
It doesn’t seem, then, that compliance with the Clean Power Plan will be an undue burden on Maine’s energy consumers. I agree that some rules and calculations need to be clarified, and that Maine should be praised, not punished, for being a “first mover.” But the biggest effect of the Clean Power Plan in Maine will not be felt in our wallets. It will be felt in our lungs – and perhaps in our climate.
This post is already too long to get into the benefits – both direct and ancillary -of the Clean Power Plan. So I’ll leave that to the next one.