President Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) was a case study in federal over-reach that cast a long shadow over our economy. The plan promised only symbolic environmental gains but very real economic damage. Fortunately, its implementation was stayed by the Supreme Court, but the near-miss still reverberates.
The Trump administration and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were right to replace the CPP with a new rule that returns to a legal framework for environmental regulation. Instead of a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach, the new plan, titled the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, lets states take the lead in crafting emissions reduction plans that best serve their needs. This is a return to cooperative federalism after years of Obama administration bullying.
The Obama EPA creatively reinterpreted the Clean Air Act to exercise authority it simply didn’t have. The CPP attempted to remake the power grid, encouraging states to push aside existing power plants for alternative technologies. It was this over-reach, challenged by a majority of U.S. states and countless organizations, that stopped the rule in its tracks. The ACE rule, in comparison, returns to solid legal footing by regulating single sources of emissions, not the entire grid.
Despite EPA projections that the ACE rule will, in fact, achieve emissions cuts that exceed those targeted by the CPP, it’s not without its critics. Those opposed see it as a lifeline to the coal industry camouflaged as a regulation.
Mr. Obama’s plan was a heat-seeking missile designed to force utilities to abandon coal. Unlike the CPP, the ACE rule provides a path forward for well-operating, essential coal plants instead of a dead-end. Coal plant operators can make upgrades to existing plants to improve their efficiency and reduce their emissions. That’s not a lifeline for the coal industry; it’s a lifeline for consumers.
Protecting the diversity of our electricity mix — which means ensuring coal plants remain a key part of it — is critical to safeguarding an affordable, reliable supply of energy in the years ahead. Time and again, our coal plants, which generate 30 percent of our power, come to the rescue to provide resiliency to the electric grid and keep prices in check when other sources of energy cannot.
Take, for example, this past winter when the Bomb Cyclone storm hit the East Coast. When extreme cold descended it was coal plants that provided more than half of the additional power needed to keep the lights on and homes warm. While natural gas plants were forced to shutter for lack of fuel or turn to oil to generate power, the coal fleet rose to the occasion.
We have traded one EPA plan that would have punished consumers for one that protects them. Recall that one analysis of the CPP projected that it would have forced the closure of enough coal generating capacity to power 24 million homes — shouldering consumers with $214 billion in additional electricity costs between 2022 and 2030. Another $64 billion would have been added onto power bills to pay for the construction of replacement generating capacity. Consumers — particularly low-income and fixed-income households — cannot afford to pay more for the necessity of keeping the lights on or staying warm.
While the repeal and replacement of the CPP is a step in the right direction, it’s no cure-all for protecting the diversity and affordability of our power supply. We are losing coal and nuclear power plants — the very foundation of our electric grid — at an alarming rate. Power markets, long skewed by heavy-handed regulation and tens-of-billions of dollars in subsidies for renewable sources of energy, aren’t properly valuing the sources of energy that deliver power around the clock. It’s imperative that the new ACE rule is but a first step in ensuring we don’t trade an affordable, reliable electric grid for a more expensive, less reliable alternative.
• Matthew Kandrach is president of Consumer Action for a Strong Economy (CASE).