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The Clean Power Plan Is Not Worth Saving. Here Are Some Steps to Take Instead

Let’s push for scalable, renewable power systems instead.

(Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters; Edited: LW / TO)

The Clean Power Plan (CPP) was proposed by President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2014 to mitigate human-caused factors in climate change. It focused principally on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The plan was much heralded by environmental groups. Not surprisingly, in October 2017, Trump’s appointed EPA head, Scott Pruitt, signed a measure meant to repeal this plan.

Several states attorneys general and many national environmental groups are pushing back. However, in censuring Trump’s attack on the CPP, valid criticisms of the plan itself have been ignored. No one remembers to mention that promoting gas was always at the heart of the CPP.

The current US gas boom is due to hydraulic fracturing of shale beds. This extreme extraction mechanism jeopardizes human aquifers, uses millions of gallons of water per well, and produces toxic flowback whose disposal is linked to water contamination and earthquakes. The product of fracturing is often referred to as “fracked gas.” In short, the CPP supports the use of “natural” (fracked) gas.

Under Obama, the EPA, aided by the gas industry, declared “natural gas” to be “clean.” Gas is mostly methane, and “fugitive methane” — the gas that leaks by accident or through intentional venting, from well-head to delivery — was discounted in the CPP. Noting the only factor in methane’s favor (it generates less carbon dioxide on combustion than coal or oil), the field is tilted in favor of gas-burning power plants. In an article entitled, “Did the ‘Clean Natural Gas’ lobby help write EPA’s Clean Power Plan?” Cornell scientist Robert Howarth points out a fundamental flaw in the CPP. The plan, “addresses only carbon dioxide emissions, and not emissions of methane… This failure to consider methane causes the Plan to promote a very poor policy — replacing coal-burning power plants with plants run on natural gas … “

Only at leakage rates lower than 1 to 3 percent (depending on usage) is gas cleaner than coal. But methane leaks at rates between 2 and 12 percent, and its climate impact — or global warming potential (GWP) — is 86 times that of CO2 over 20 years. (The GWP means a pound of methane in the atmosphere has the warming equivalent of 86 pounds of CO2 over 20 years. Of course, we’re not talking about pounds here, but about millions of tons per year.) In a review of the CPP, Howarth said, “Converting to natural gas plants, which is what this latest rule is likely to do, will actually aggravate climate change, not make things better. It’s well enough established to suggest the EPA is on the wrong side of the science.”

A Marshall Plan to build and deploy scalable, renewable power systems is needed.

It should be noted that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Paris accord and New York State all use the year 1990 as a baseline from which to measure greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions. But, perhaps disingenuously, Obama’s EPA chose to use 2005, at which time recession had already achieved significant carbon reduction, rendering the plan’s proposed cuts to CO2 even less significant.

In August 2015, James Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for three decades and one of the first to sound the alarm about global warming, described the CPP as “almost worthless” in that it failed “to attack the fundamental problem.” Hansen stated bluntly: “As long as fossil fuels are allowed to be the cheapest energy, someone will burn them.” Of the steps the CPP claimed to be taking to address global warming, Hansen said, “It is not so much a matter of how far you go. It is a matter of whether you are going in the right direction.” That same year, the US Energy Information Administration came to the same conclusion that others had: Under the CPP, the natural gas industry would benefit before renewables did.

Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University also examined the efficacy of the CPP. He told Truthout that instead of using the IPCC’s global warming potential for methane of 86 pounds over 20 years, the CPP assessed methane’s impact (GWP) at 25 pounds over 100 years. This factor, its failure to fully assess fugitive methane, as well as its curious 2005 baseline, mean that the projected 32 percent reduction in CO2 from power plants by 2030 would have the net effect of reducing those greenhouse gas emissions by only 11 percent. The CPP “more than compensates for the elimination of coal CO2 with additional CO2 and methane,” according to Ingraffea. “If this is all we manage in the power sector in the next 13 years, we are screwed,” he said.

Saving the CPP Is Not the Best Use of Our Environmental Energy

New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman held hearings on January 9, 2018, with representatives from many green NGOs lined up behind him, to declare his intent to challenge the Trump EPA’s dismantling of the CPP.

However, Jannette Barth, an economist with the Pepacton Institute, explains that advances in technology and falling costs make renewables a viable source of energy for widespread deployment. If New York opts instead to promote natural gas, this would effectively commit the state, and its citizens, to the use of that gas for decades to come. With new gas-fired plants in operation, there will be far less momentum for utilities to reinvest in renewables — the massive capital outlay for gas and its infrastructure will have already occurred. “That’s not only self-defeating, but an insult to everyone who fought to protect New York from fracking,” said Barth. “It is a flawed economic policy.”

At Schneiderman’s hearing, about 50 environmental organizations — including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Environmental Defense Fund and Food & Water Watch — spoke about the need to push back against Trump and Pruitt and our obligation to address global warming, but little was said about real problems with the Clean Power Plan.

Big green NGOs are corporate entities now, beholden to powerful donors.

Trump’s and Pruitt’s intentions aside, why are environmental organizations so outraged that a plan which promotes fracked gas is being tossed out by this administration? Why are big green NGOs taking a position that counters that of grassroots groups fighting infrastructure?

Citizen testimony at the hearing, however, slammed both the taxpayer money being squandered, as well as the plan itself. Suzy Winkler, co-founder of People, Not Pipelines said,

What can each state accomplish without Washington’s approval? In New York, [we can] stop putting in pipelines and burning fracked gas. Governor Cuomo should start … by rescinding the air permits for the CPV and [Cricket Valley] gas-fired power plants. And for goodness’ sake, don’t build a 16-megawatt fracked-gas power plant in downtown Albany that will lock the capitol of New York — a state that banned fracking — to fracked gas for years to come.

For Governor Cuomo, Attorney General Schneiderman, and even those big greens who spoke at the hearing, the lawsuit could provide a convenient distraction, as the state may fail to meet GHG reduction targets Cuomo himself set, and those national environmental groups consistently dodge local infrastructure battles to pursue campaigns that attract donors.

Fix the Clean Power Plan? Or Push for Something Better?

Under the Trump administration, the EPA will continue its efforts to roll back environmental protections in the near term, so any hope that flaws in the CPP might be addressed is naïve. Additionally, no panel of scientists will agree on how the CPP should have been designed. Still, it’s possible to identify common-sense policies that should be acceptable to anyone trying to stem global warming.

First, don’t repeat the errors made in drafting the CPP. Failure to accurately assess methane leakage, failure fully to account for methane’s global warming potential, and perhaps a real intent to promote gas, justified the CPP’s incentives to swap out coal- and oil-fired power and heat for gas-burning systems. We now know that gas is even dirtier than coal.

Across the northern United States, under-insulated homes hemorrhage heat in winter. Millions of dollars are levied from struggling local economies and paid to international fossil fuel corporations. That money never returns. Demand-side issues in the heat-and-power puzzle must be part of the solution.

Given the critical situation, there should be no subsides, incentives or tax breaks for any fossil-fuel extraction, transmission or power. This one simple step would force fuel prices upwards while promoting conservation.

A tax on carbon could provide powerful incentives for the public to seek alternatives, yet it might be regressive, hitting hardest those least able to afford it. How could a carbon fee be assessed?

Called the “social cost of carbon” and accepted by the previous administration’s EPA, the IPCC and the UN, externalized expenses are a dollar figure for environmental, health and climate costs associated with fossil fuel. It isn’t charged when you buy gas, so gas appears cheaper than it is. Still, it is real price we pay. Physicians’ organizations have tracked adverse health impacts associated with gas infrastructure. These include fetal anomalies, respiratory illnesses, endocrine disruption and cancers. Spills and explosions incur costs to local communities and the state. Less tangible are costs associated with floods and droughts which accompany climate change. While not everyone agrees on the social cost, $40 per ton of CO2 is a reasonable central estimate.

Currently, across the country, oversight agencies are understaffed and underfunded. These factors, often combined with an industry-friendly attitude, mean that health and safety violations may be overlooked. Even when fines are imposed, they may be minimal, negotiated down or waived. For any gas infrastructure currently under construction or in operation, industry penalties must include: the cost of aggressive oversight; the cost of any immediate environmental, property or health harm; and some fraction of the currently externalized carbon costs discussed above.

James Hansen, Bob Howarth, Tony Ingraffea, Jannette Barth and Mark Jacobson — the prominent scientists Truthout contacted for this article — would all agree that something like a Marshall Plan to build and deploy scalable, renewable power systems is needed.

Careful coordination must occur to shrink reliance on fossil fuel systems as we grow renewable capacity. Ingraffea uses plain language: “We can’t have people freezing in the dark or walking to work.” He was speaking at a December 2016 conference in Albany on the climate impacts of methane. “We are where we are today due to a lack of planning 10 years ago.” He then asked, rhetorically, “Where will we be in 10 more years?”

The state of New York currently gets 3 percent of its power from solar and wind. Renewable deployment has indeed reflected the flat trajectory predicted by analysts of the CPP. We must recognize that the CPP was never the only, never even the main, obstacle in transitioning to renewable energy sources. What’s been missing all along, and what’s absent still, is the political will and leadership to move forward with giant steps instead of baby steps — or worse, missteps touted as forward movement.

Big green NGOs are corporate entities now, beholden to powerful donors, and often address local environmental crises either with pompous explication of policy, or not at all. They “manage” input and dissent with condescension, stonewalling and blacklisting, mirroring government and industry response to criticism. As Naomi Klein has said, they may be more dangerous than the climate deniers.

Many frontline communities regarded the “beyond coal” campaigns of Sierra Club and NRDC — when coal was virtually non-existent in New York and dying elsewhere — as disingenuous at best, and at worst, providing cover to an industrial and governmental push for gas pipelines, gas power plants and gas heating systems. In October 2017 Michael Bloomberg donated $64 million to Sierra’s “beyond coal” campaign. Remember: it was cheap gas, not Sierra, that killed coal. Do you think Sierra Club will spend Bloomberg’s millions helping communities stop compressor stations and pipelines?

AG Schneiderman will use New York’s resources to sue the EPA to preserve a rule advocating more gas consumption. The NRDC, Environmental Defense Fund and the New York League of Conservation Voters will use your donation money to help sway public opinion in this fight, soliciting more donations along the way.

We do have a choice. If we could follow the science instead of opting for political posturing, we might make progress on global warming.