Minnesotans should be pleased that state Attorney General Lori Swanson has joined attorneys general in 17 other states to defend the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan against those attempting to block limits on carbon pollution.
Swanson will no doubt face pushback from Republican legislators who disagree with this position, as well as others, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, that are working to block or undermine the plan.
The Clean Power Plan represents a new front in the fight to slow climate change. The limits it would place on carbon-dioxide emissions will go a long way toward reducing one of the leading accelerants of climate change, while also measurably reducing air pollutants.
So far, the issue is dividing the country along predictable lines. Democratic-leaning states favor the EPA’s attempts to limit emissions. That includes coastal states such as California, Oregon, New York and Virginia, as well as Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois in the Midwest. Some 26 states — much of the nation’s red-leaning midsection, from Montana to Texas and Utah to West Virginia, along with most of the South — stand opposed, and 24 of those have a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Appeals to block the plan. Oklahoma and North Dakota have filed their own lawsuits. Six states are staying out of the fray for now.
Much of the tension boils down to what is becoming a very worn set of arguments. Frustrated by congressional inaction, the executive branch proposes an action. Republicans reliably rise up to declare said action an illegal power grab.
In a less-polarized world, the White House would not be stepping over the one body directly elected by the people to accomplish its aims. How much better would it be for congressional Republicans and Democrats to achieve a compromise that moves ahead, even fractionally, while acknowledging the other side’s concerns.
But in the absence of that, how long must we wait while climate change accelerates and air quality deteriorates?
The Clean Power Plan proposes to reduce carbon emissions by nearly a third of what they were in 2005. It would take until 2030 to do so. This would be achieved largely by requiring states and utilities to use less coal and more alternative fuel sources, such as wind, power and natural gas. Remarkably, this would stand as the first national standard for dealing with carbon emissions by power plants, an obvious source of air pollutants.
The plan gives states nearly a year to draft compliance plans and two more years in which to develop final plans. That takes us out to 2018, allowing 12 years in which to gradually bring down emissions, with states able to devise their own methods. This appears to be a fairly lengthy path to a modest goal.
Xcel Energy is among those that see opportunity in the emerging landscape. The company has accelerated its investments in wind, solar and natural gas. “This is really a business decision about what we think is right for the future,” Chris Clark, president of Xcel’s Minnesota regional operations, said in a recent Star Tribune interview. “I think it is what our customers want us to do.”
The coalition opposing the plan says it could cost jobs, push up the price of electricity and create unreliability in the power grid. Whether that would happen is not known with any certainty. In the meantime, we know for a fact that coal-fired power plants create 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions that in turn degrade air quality, contribute to climate change, and even aggravate asthma and respiratory disease in individuals.
The Clean Power Plan likely would hasten the decommissioning of coal-fired power plants. Minnesota’s own Sherco Power plant is a case in point. Xcel already has signaled that retrofitting the aging plant would be cost-prohibitive. That is no small consideration. Here as elsewhere, Sherco provides jobs and contributes to the overall energy pool. Every effort must be made to channel resources and alternative energy jobs and industries into the areas that are giving up traditional power sources.
That said, the U.S. must also undertake the hard task of adjusting to new realities in climate or risk far bigger disruptions. The usual red vs. blue political arguments should be taken elsewhere. They have no real place in an issue that will require the sharpest minds on both sides to devise humane, sustainable solutions.