EPA Moves to Cut Coal Pollution, but Critics Say Plan Falls Short on Real Emissions Reduction

New environmental regulations unveiled this week are being described as the U.S. government’s most sweeping effort to date in curbing the emissions that cause global warming. The Environmental Protection Agency is seeking a 30-percent reduction of carbon emissions from 2005 levels at coal-fired power plants by the year 2030. But many environmentalists are urging the United States to take greater action on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The Guardian reports some of the most coal-heavy states, including West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio, will be allowed to maintain, or even increase, their emissions under the EPA plan. Meanwhile, the European Union said the United States must “do even more” to help keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. We are joined by Janet Redman, director of the Climate Policy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The Environmental Protection Agency announced earlier this week new regulations seeking a 30% reduction of carbon emissions at coal-fired power plants by the year 2030. The regulations have been described as the U.S. government’s most sweeping effort aimed at curbing the emissions that cause global warming.

AMY GOODMAN: However, The Guardian reports some of the most coal heavy states, including West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio will be allowed to maintain or even increase their emissions under the EPA plan. Meanwhile, the European Union and the United States must “do even more to help keep global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius.” For more we go to Washington, D.C. where we are joined by Janet Redman, Director of the Climate Policy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies. She recently co-released a statement with Wenonah Hauter called, “EPA’s Carbon Rule Falls Short of Real Emissions Reduction.” Janet Redman, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about what President Obama announced, with the EPA announced last weekend and what it means.

JANET REDMAN: Sure. I think what is important to keep in mind is there are kind of three pieces to this. This is an exciting and important announcement, but it falls short of real leadership on climate change, and there are a lot of devils in the details that we still need to figure out next year. So, first and foremost, this is an incredibly important announcement. This is a first time that the White House — that the U.S. is looking at reducing greenhouse gas pollution from power plants. That’s based on a finding from 2009 that when the EPA determined that greenhouse gas emissions do threaten the well-being of Americans because they lead to climate change, which has negative impacts on families and on our environment. So, this is an incredibly important announcement. And it is important in particular because climate change is really an environmental justice issue.

The impacts of climate change and the impacts of pollution that come from power plants hurt people who are living in communities of color and low-income communities first and worst. So that is an incredibly important win. The problem, however, is that those reductions are not enough to make the U.S. a leader either here at home or on the global stage. So, let’s look at the numbers a little bit. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the body of hundreds of scientists from around the world who study climate change, who read thousands of reports and put out their own global assessment every few years, has said that developed countries like the U.S. need to reduce their economy wide emissions between 25% to 40% from 1990 levels by 2020.

Now, we look at Obama and EPA’s plan, they’re talking about reducing emissions from only the power-generating sector, so that is only about 40% of our economy. And they’re talking about reducing those emissions from the year 2005. Our emissions were much higher in 2005 than in 1990 levels, so we are already creating a false baseline in measuring our objections differently than other folks in other countries are measuring them. So, 30% reduction in on only a relatively — an important but small part of our economy wide emissions from a higher baseline and by a later year means that we are not meeting the kinds of — we are not making the kinds of emission reductions we need to to stay below two degrees of warming from preindustrial levels to avoid catastrophic climate change.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Janet Redman, on the environmental justice aspect of this, there’s also this issue of the allowance of cap and trade as a means of perhaps where some communities will not be able to benefit from these reductions. Could you talk about that?

JANET REDMAN: Sure, this is where kind of the devil in the detail piece comes in. What the EPA’s plan does, instead of saying, listen, we’re going to have an emission reduction plan that is the same for every single state, this EPA plan says, the states — we will set targets for each state and the targets are different for every state. As you mentioned, some of the most polluting states have actually lower targets or, in fact, may not have to reduce their missions at all. But, there are many different ways states can meet their emission reductions if they have them. Things like renewable energy portfolio standards, demand-side energy efficiency. California, for example, has fuel emission standards. But, there is also a mechanism called cap and trade where a cap is placed on greenhouse gas emissions. But, polluters are allowed to trade emission permits or pollution permits that allow them to meet the regulatory obligations in the cheapest way possible. That is a problem because while the atmosphere may not care were greenhouse gas emissions come from, the people who live in the shadow of the most polluting and dirtiest industries, the ones where it would be most expensive to clean up and are most likely to use cheaper mechanisms like buying credits, will still be breathing in the toxic emissions of those power plants.

But, even more importantly, I think this is where we are really concerned about what happens over the next year while states are writing their plans and the EPA reviewing those plans from states, there’s a problem called offsetting. In the EPA’s plan, it says it will not accept offsets from outside of the power sector. So, for example, it won’t say if you protect forests over here, that’s going to count the same as lowering your missions for power plants. However, the state plans do accept out of sector offsets so it will be on the states themselves to say to the EPA, hey, we have got these out of sector emissions reductions, so we’re paying farmers to reduce their emissions from, say, methane from manure and counting those as our own while our own power plants continue to emit or emit more. We are going to figure out a way to have those not count when we report to you at the federal level. I think even the EPA knows that is going to be incredibly complicated. So, the plans over the next year are incredibly important. The problem is, that once the plans are approved by the EPA, it is a hands-off approach. So, we will have to wait about a decade to see if in fact states were able to take apart the various offsets inside their cap and trade program to make sure that in fact power plants in the states like California are really in fact reducing their emissions.

AMY GOODMAN: Republican House Speaker John Boehner has criticized Obama’s plan saying it would “cause a surge in electricity bills, shut down plants and potentially put an average of 224,000 more people out of work every year.” He also said he is not qualified really to talk about climate change. He says, “I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change.” Your thoughts on this?

JANET REDMAN: Certainly, I think what is important is that reducing emissions and reigning in pollution from coal power plants and augmenting renewable energy and energy efficiency will actually create jobs, it will reduce costs that we spend right now on caring for asthma and caring for days missed when kids have to — when parents have to take kids to the hospital to treat asthma. It is better for our economy, it’s better for our communities to reduce pollution from power plants. We should be doing a better job than we are. We should be doing a better job than the EPA’s plan.

AMY GOODMAN: Janet Redman, we have to leave it there. Janet Redman is with the Institute for Policy Studies.