Killing Clean Power Plan Risks Pennsylvania Renewable Future

Revoking of Clean Power Plan Could Spell Trouble for Pennsylvania Renewables, Boost Coal

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt recently announced plans to revoke the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era plan to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 2030. If Pruitt succeeds, this could have detrimental effects on the environment and the economy, particularly in states such as Pennsylvania. Although Pennsylvania is on track to reach the goals dictated by the Clean Power Plan (CPP), the end of the CPP could reverse that progress, halting the growth of clean energy and propping up the state’s failing coal industry. But just how badly would these effects be felt in Pennsylvania? To answer that question, let’s first take a look at the CPP to understand what it is and why it matters.

What is the Clean Power Plan?

Under the Obama administration in 2015, the EPA created the Clean Power Plan with the goal of reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of the country’s power plants by 32 percent between 2005 and 2030. At the time of the CPP’s creation, the EPA’s website described the CPP as a way of creating “national consistency, accountability and a level playing field while reflecting each state’s energy mix.” That means Pennsylvania and other states with higher carbon footprints would be required to cut back carbon emissions by eliminating their reliance on power generation from coal. However, Obama’s Clean Power Plan also makes room for flexibility, allowing each state to choose its own methods for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

One of these methods is known as emissions trading, or cap and trade programs. Under these programs, power providers receive a certain number of emission rate credits, which they can trade or sell to other energy companies. This market-based approach offers a financial incentive for companies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and invest in renewable power.

Why the Clean Power Plan Matters

The CPP set the first set of national standards for reining in the carbon emissions of power plants. The EPA estimated that if these standards are met, the plan would prevent 3,600 premature deaths, 1,700 heart attacks, 90,000 asthma attacks and 300,000 missed work and school days. If allowed to continue, the Clean Power Plan will help lower energy costs, reduce the negative effects of human activity on the environment and help the U.S. lead global efforts to combat climate change.

The CPP’s impact on Pennsylvania 

A state largely powered by coal, Pennsylvania has a lot of work to do in order to comply with the CPP. The Clean Power Plan requires Pennsylvania to reduce its emissions by 33 percent of 2005 levels by 2030. While these are high standards, Pennsylvania is on track to reach its goals, as it’s using more natural gas and renewable sources, such as wind and solar. The recent decline of coal power in Pennsylvania has also contributed to this progress. Although Pennsylvania is the fourth-largest coal producer in the U.S., competition from clean renewable energy is contributing to the rapid decline of coal power plant pollution.

Due to the decline of Pennsylvania’s coal industry, some critics have accused the CPP of unfairly harming Pennsylvania’s economy. Rachel Gleason, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, celebrated Pruitt’s plan to revoke the CPP, saying, “The repeal of the Clean Power Plan … will no longer threaten our economy, the jobs of over 30,000 hardworking men and women, and grid reliability and resiliency.” She described the CPP as “particularly discriminatory against Pennsylvania.” But supporters of the CPP argue that the growth of renewables in Pennsylvania will actually benefit its economy. According to the Department of Energy’s most recent U.S. Energy and Employment Report, there are twice as many renewable energy jobs in solar, for example, than jobs in the coal industry.

The CPP’s benefits in Pennsylvania stretch far beyond economic growth, however. If coal power plant emissions rise, soot and other public health hazards in Pennsylvania would increase. According to the environmental health and safety consulting firm, Cashins & Associates, soot from coal-fired power generation can cause serious lung damage, coronary heart disease, asthma and other respiratory illnesses. 

Why Revoke the CPP?

Pruitt’s move to revoke the federal Clean Power Plan appears to be motivated by the Trump administration’s support of the coal and nuclear industries. In an announcement, Pruitt claimed that the CPP aims to “pick winners and losers on how we pick electricity in this country. And that is wrong.” Pruitt’s actions are part of a larger move by the Trump administration to revive coal and nuclear energy, which they often refer to as “baseload power sources.” Earlier in the fall, the Department of Energy issued a report claiming that “baseload power is necessary to a well-functioning grid.” This conclusion disregards the DOE’s own findings that the increase in wind and solar energy poses no threat to the grid’s reliability.

The Future of Energy in Pennsylvania

While it is clear that revoking the CPP would have negative effects on Pennsylvania’s environment and economy, there is still hope for the growth of renewable energy in the state and across the country. Experts say the falling prices of wind energy and solar energy will help lower carbon emissions throughout the U.S. (although Pennsylvania is unlikely to reach its ambitious goals for carbon reduction without further aid from the CPP). There is also some reason to believe that the CPP will remain in place. Joseph Otis Minott, executive director of the Clean Air Council and an outspoken critic of Pruitt, said, “It would take years and an absurd amount of taxpayer dollars for President Trump’s EPA to even attempt to repeal the Clean Power Plan.” If Minott is right about the legal and economic barriers to Pruitt’s plan, we can expect the Clean Power Plan to help states reduce their annual greenhouse gas emissions for years to come.

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