Carping about Carbon Emissions

By on June 12th, 2014

Eric Freedman

Eric Freedman

Carping about Carbon Emissions

June 13, 2014

When President Obama announced a proposed rule to reduce power plant emissions that contribute substantially to climate change, predictable objections from Republicans came fast and furious – job destroyer, too expensive, unnecessary, presidential power grab – even that there is no such thing as human-induced climate change. Of course, similar broad-stroke partisan objections have greeted virtually everything Obama has proposed since taking office.

The traditional utility industry raised its objections based on practicality and cost.

Now a funny thing is happening – some in the GOP and the industry have backed away from the initial relentless criticism. More on that later in the column.

Relying on Executive Branch authority under the Clean Air Act, the rule targets carbon dioxide emissions from plants responsible for an estimated 40 percent of U.S. carbon pollution. The rule is intended to reduce carbon emissions nationally by 30 percent by 2030, compared to emissions in 2005, the baseline year.

U.S. Senate Republican candidate Terri Lynn Land immediately slammed the proposal as part of Obama’s “War on Michigan” and accused Democratic candidate Gary Peters “of selling out Michigan jobs for his radical environmental agenda.”

To be fair, some Democrats objected too, primarily those from coal mining states who see the new rule as a further body-blow to an economic mainstay of their constituents – much the way tobacco state lawmakers have long fought federal measures to reduce smoking and Michigan lawmakers objected to tougher federal fuel efficiency standards.

Despite Land’s hyperbolic rhetoric, Peters has expressed his qualms about the proposed rule. “The setting of achievable and affordable carbon reduction goals is an essential and important first step in the process,” he said in a news release. “However, I am concerned that the proposed draft EPA rule imposes a more stringent standard on Michigan than surrounding Midwestern states.”

The EPA proposal, which will be subjected to extensive public comment, allows state-by-state variations in targets and timetables.

Peters suggested that there may be lessons to be learned from the experience of dealing with fuel efficiency standards. The administration’s carbon emissions rule, he said, “needs to include a mid-term review process to ensure timelines are realistic and recognize that progress may not be linear. I believe that a process similar to what was adopted to increase motor vehicle fuel efficiency standards should be included in the EPA rule.”

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, nationally, electricity generated from coal nationally has declined from 5,453 to 4,345 megawatt hours daily during the past decade.

My MSU journalism student, RJ Wolcott, recently reported for Great Lakes Echo that Michigan – which mines no coal – imported more than 7 million tons in the last quarter of 2013.

“Last year, 54 percent of electricity flowing into Michigan homes and businesses came from coal-fired generators,” Wolcott wrote. “And all of it arrived by train from other states, including Wyoming and Montana.”

As for moderating attitudes, for example, in a Michigan Public Radio interview, Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant said of the president’s proposal, “We support that goal. We think it’s a legitimate goal.” He added that the GOP Snyder administration will seek flexibility to achieve the new standards.

In fact, Wyant noted, Michigan is already on track toward reaching the 10 percent renewable energy target set by a 2008 state law. The state will request that the federal government count utilities’ efficiency efforts toward the new emissions goals.

Similarly, the administration of would-be GOP President Chris Christie backs the proposal.

A New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection press aide said New Jersey is better positioned than other states to comply because its utilities have been moving toward the use of cleaner fuels.

And after a little additional thought, some electric utility officials are also now softening or even scrapping their objections because their companies are well on the way toward the proposed target.

In part, that’s because these utilities have already reduced emissions significantly since the 2005 base year through new technologies, use of more natural gas – yes, thanks to fracking – and alternative fuels, and increased energy efficiency and conservation measures in homes and businesses.

In Michigan and elsewhere, many coal-burning plants are nearing the end of their expected lifespans, so utilities already have been planning how to replace them. Consumers Energy intends to close its seven oldest plants by 2016.

Earlier this month, DTE Energy exercised an option to buy one of the two Pheasant Run wind parks in Huron County as part of what it called efforts “to expand the company’s renewable energy resources and meet the state’s renewable energy goals. DTE Energy will have almost 1,000 MW of renewable energy assets, equivalent to 10 percent of its power sales by 2015.” Wind will provide most of that.

DTE intends to own facilities that will provide up to half of that 10 percent and will get the rest from third-party producers, such as NextEra Energy Resources – seller of the Huron County wind park.

A March report by the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that by 2030 the state can affordably meet almost one-third of its electricity requirements from in-state renewable energy resources.

Aside from politics, the proposed rule will generate other winners if it becomes law. Those winners include the alternative energy industry – fuels, manufacturing and capital construction of facilities – an industry that the Snyder administration has been assiduously courting and subsidizing.

Eric Freedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is associate professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service at Michigan State University. He and columnist Stephen A. Jones are co-authors of Presidents and Black America: A Documentary History (Congressional Quarterly Press).

Eric Freedman

Eric Freedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service and the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. He is a former Lansing Bureau reporter for the Detroit News and has been a Fulbright journalism instructor in Uzbekistan, Lithuania and the Republic of Georgia.

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