Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Yesterday, House and Senate Republicans revealed a new tactic in their war against the Clean Power Plan, the EPA proposal to curb carbon pollution: Pass legislation permitting states to “just say no” to the rule, as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been urging the states to do. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) each released legislation that would let states opt out of the Clean Power Plan, purportedly to protect their electricity consumers (among other reasons).

Is this the same party that just proposed slashing support for public housing, food assistance, and home energy bills? Yes, and it hasn’t suddenly decided to help struggling American families. These new pieces of legislation are every bit as anti-consumer.

Whitfield released a “discussion draft” that would exempt a state  from the Clean Power Plan if the governor determines that complying would “have a significant adverse effect” on ratepayers by raising electricity rates or on reliability of the state’s electricity grid. Portman filed an amendment to the Senate budget resolution suggesting that states should be allowed to opt out of the Clean Power Plan if, among other things “ a Governor or legislative body of a State determines that the requirements of that section [section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, which authorizes the Clean Power Plan] would increase retail electricity prices with a disproportionate impact on low-income or fixed-income households . . . .”*

Both pieces of legislation reflect major misunderstandings of the Clean Power Plan, and they would harm consumers considerably. Here’s why:

The Clean Power Plan will benefit consumers by mitigating climate change. Climate change poses a severe threat to American consumers, and in particular to vulnerable populations. A few of the most salient risks include:

  • higher taxes and market prices to cover the costs of widespread damage to infrastructure and other property from extreme weather;
  • diminished quality and higher prices for food and water, heightening food insecurity for America’s most vulnerable populations; and
  • increased illness and disease from extreme heat events, reduced air quality, and increased food-borne, water-borne, and insect-borne pathogens.

The Clean Power Plan will benefit consumers by curbing carbon pollution, which will mitigate these harms. The Plan will also reduce other forms of pollution from the nation’s dirtiest power plants, like emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury. As a result, it will boost public health further, reducing both premature deaths and non-fatal cardiovascular disease.

The Clean Power Plan will lower consumers’ electricity bills. The Clean Power Plan should lower consumer costs, not raise them, because it will spur improvements in energy efficiency. Although electricity prices may rise modestly under the Plan, consumers will use less electricity, resulting in lower bills overall. The EPA projects that the Plan will lower consumer bills by 8.4 percent by 2030. A Public Citizen analysis suggests that the EPA  estimate is conservative, overestimating the cost of efficiency programs and underestimating how much progress the states can make on efficiency. Consumer costs are likely to decline by even more than the agency projects.

States should serve their consumers and protect vulnerable populations. If these consumer benefits don’t materialize, then it is likely the states, not the EPA, that will bear responsibility. The states can take a lead role in implementing the Clean Power Plan by writing their own compliance plans. State policymakers can choose to implement the Plan in a manner that benefits or harms consumers and protects or burdens vulnerable populations. State governments have a responsibility to serve their citizens and protect vulnerable communities. The amendment is wrong to excuse the states from those duties and suggest that the responsibility for harming consumers lies with section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, a statute that protects the public by safeguarding our health.

What’s really going on here is a familiar story: Congressional Republicans are using consumer protection as an excuse to advance the interests of fossil-fuel companies. Undermining the Clean Power Plan would harm American families, making them sicker and raising the cost of basic household needs like food and electricity.

*Technically, the Portman amendment would permit the Chairman of the Budget Committee to revise the allocations in the budget resolution in light of later legislation permitting states to opt out of the Clean Power Plan for the reasons above. Members of Congress often discuss these matters as if they actually make law rather than just contemplate hypothetical future legislation.

 

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On Monday we submitted our comments to the EPA on its draft Clean Power Plan. Roughly two million people told the EPA they support the plan, which aims to cut carbon emissions from power plants 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. We strongly support the plan, and we think the agency should make it much stronger and even more consumer friendly. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, we can advance those two goals at the same time. Fighting climate change is good for consumers. Fighting it more aggressively—with a focus on low-cost solutions—is even better. The short  version of our recommendations is that the Clean Power Plan should use much more energy efficiency and renewables, much less natural gas (if any), and likely no nuclear power.

We care about climate change because it will be devastating to consumers—to all Americans, that is—and especially  to the poor, the elderly, and other vulnerable populations. We also care about protecting consumer budgets—again particularly those of low-income households. Consumers usually pay for upgrades or other changes in electricity infrastructure on their utility bills, and for this reason opponents of climate change policy have been arguing that the Clean Power Plan will hurt consumers. Cutting carbon emissions will cost money, they argue, straining household budgets.

We found the opposite. The strongest tools to reduce carbon emissions from power plants are actually the least expensive and the most beneficial to consumers. If the EPA were to craft the rule using a simple organizing principle—cut carbon incrementally by using the lowest-cost strategy to displace the most carbon-intensive electricity generation—the rule would be much stronger and less expensive. Here are the key points:

  • Treat efficiency and renewables as replacing fossil-fuels, in order of the most carbon intensive. The proposal assumes that new natural gas generation will replace coal. But it treats energy efficiency and renewables as merely adding to the pool of available power rather than displacing coal or natural gas. That doesn’t make sense. The point of boosting efficiency and renewables is to displace fossil fuels—and in fact that’s what usually happens in the market because fossil-fuel generation usually has higher operating costs. This simple common sense change would strengthen the rule a great deal.
  • Strengthen the efficiency targets significantly. Energy efficiency is by far the lowest-cost way to cut carbon emissions, but the EPA overestimates its cost by 60 to 100 percent. It also sets its targets too low. The agency expects us to increase efficiency by just 1.5 percent annually even though the best states are already pursuing gains of 2 percent or more. And it considers only utility efficiency programs like weatherization of homes, leaving out things like 1building codes and appliance standards. Boost the efficiency targets, and you get a much more powerful, less expensive rule.
  • Strengthen the renewables targets significantly. As UCS has demonstrated, the EPA makes similar mistakes with renewables. States can add nearly double the amount of renewables that the proposal projects, at much lower cost.
  • Curb the use of natural gas. The plan’s reliance on natural gas is misplaced for multiple reasons. First, because of methane emissions, switching from coal to natural gas may not have any climate benefit for more than 100 years. We need to fix the problem well before then. Second, the proposal’s reliance on natural gas will lead to more environmentally hazardous fracking, which the EPA should not be encouraging, and put additional pressure on natural gas prices, which are already projected to rise 23 percent by 2030, straining household budgets. Finally, the EPA underestimates the cost of using natural gas to replace coal because it overlooks that we need to phase out natural gas soon too. Natural gas emits less carbon than coal, but still very significant amounts, and we need to reduce carbon emissions to zero as quickly as possible. The real cost of switching to natural gas is the cost of the current change plus the expense of moving to renewables in a few years. We would save a lot of money by going straight to renewables.
  • Curb (likely eliminate) the use of nuclear power. Nuclear power is usually an exorbitant boondoggle that consumers get stuck subsidizing through their electricity bills. The EPA’s proposal gets the cost of nuclear power wrong in nearly every way. It underestimates the costs of subsidizing existing nuclear plants that can’t make money. It omits the multi-billion-dollar cost of completing nuclear generators currently under-construction. (These projects nearly always run way behind schedule and cost billions more than budgeted; we would save a lot of money by scrapping them even mid-construction.) It also fails to account for the cost of storing nuclear waste, a problem we still haven’t solved but which will cost billions, and ignores the possibility of catastrophic accidents. As of late 2012, Tokyo Electric Power Co. was estimating that the cleanup from the Fukushima disaster would cost up to $137 billion. It’s hard to find space for nuclear power in sound climate policy when every other option is cheaper and efficiency and renewables can accomplish so much.

The Clean Power Plan already represents a significant step in fighting climate change, and it will make consumers far better off. For those reasons, we told the EPA that we strongly support the plan. But we need to do better—and we can.

Today the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a fantastic study finding that the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan underestimates how much progress we can make on renewable energy. The agency could nearly double the amount of renewables in its carbon-reduction targets for states, from 12 percent of 2030 electric generation to 23 percent. The UCS analysis isn’t just wishful thinking. It’s based on the actual pace of renewables growth in the recent past, as well as state laws in place that require particular increases in renewables. As the National Wildlife Federation points out in its comment on the UCS study, the EPA’s targets for renewables fall short of what the U.S. Energy Information Agency projects will happen under a business-as-usual scenario. Why do less, when we can do much more?

The best news in the study is that by raising the targets for renewables, EPA can dramatically boost the efficacy of the Clean Power Plan overall. Rather than reduce carbon emissions just 30 percent from 2005  levels by 2030, the Plan could achieve a 40 percent reduction. That’s because the Plan works primarily by replacing coal with another fossil fuel — natural gas. If we go further and replace some of that natural gas with renewables (and reduce the need for electricity with energy efficiency measures), we can make much more significant, sustainable reductions in carbon emissions.

A fossil-fuel-industry front group that calls itself the “60 Plus Association” has released a “study” claiming that the EPA’s proposal to curb carbon pollution, known as the Clean Power Plan, would raise utility costs for seniors. Don’t buy it.

The group relies on a sleight-of-hand to make its claim: It cites only the EPA’s projection that electricity prices will increase under its rule (Clean Power Plan Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA) Table 3-21) while ignoring the projection, just a few pages later in the very same document, that electricity bills will actually decline. The rule includes efficiency measures that will result in consumers using significantly less power. (RIA Table 3-24). So raw electricity prices will go up a bit, but we will use less power—and pay less overall.

Also, 60 Plus looks only at the agency’s analysis for 2020, rather than its longer-term projections. What happens in the long term is obviously more important. It’s also much more favorable.

Here is a chart that shows projected electricity prices and bills under one of two main scenarios that the EPA analyzes:

Projected Retail Electricity Prices Under EPA’s Option 1, State Compliance Scenario Projected Change in Utility Bills
Cents/kWh Without Rule Cents/kWh Under Rule Percent Change
2020 10.4 11.1 6.5% 3.2%
2025 10.8 11.1 2.9% -5.3%
2030 10.9 11.3 3.1% -8.4%
Source: RIA Tables 3-21, 3-22, 3-23, 3-24.

 

60 Plus points out that electricity prices will rise 6.5 percent in 2020, but it ignores that actual bills will rise by less than half that (3.2 percent) in 2020 and will decline 5.3 percent by 2025 and 8.4 percent by 2030. The numbers are even more favorable under the EPA’s other major scenario, in which states band together and comply in regional groups rather than comply separately. There, bills would fall by 8.7 percent by 2030. (RIA Table 3-24).

Media outlets should ignore this kind of junk from 60 Plus. But at least one local TV station was duped by this release. WDBJ 7 in Virginia not only reported the study, but misreported in just the way 60 Plus wants: by saying it shows that electricity bills will increase under the EPA plan.

Let’s hope no one else picks it up.

It’s been a big week for climate change. Here’s a roundup of the news in case you’ve had trouble keeping up:

Yesterday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon hosted a UN Summit on climate change in New York, convening leaders in government, business, finance and civil society to “galvanize and catalyze climate action.” The idea was that world leaders would announce major new initiatives. To some extent it was a success, although it didn’t prompt major announcements from the U.S. or China, the 800-pound carbon emitters in the room.

President Barack Obama spoke at the summit, urging aggressive action, particularly from China. He announced an executive order requiring federal agencies to “factor climate resilience” into foreign aid and development decisions. Regarding major actions on climate change, he simply referred to the EPA’s proposed rule to curb carbon emissions 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, which Public Citizen strongly supports and seeks to strengthen. He also noted that the U.S. is on target to meet its pledge to cut emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. For its part, China said it would try to peak its carbon emissions “as early as possible.”

Just last week, the U.S. made two other announcements:

  • The Department of Energy proposed a rule that would require hotels to use more efficient heating and cooling equipment. The rule could reduce carbon emissions by 11.29 metric tons, which is like taking 2.3 million cars off the road. It’s also another example of how climate change policy makes good economic sense. DOE estimates that the rule would cost businesses up to $9.39 million per year but save them up to $13.1 million per in energy costs. Those benefits are in addition to $7.2 million annual savings from reduced carbon emissions.
  • The White House announced that it secured voluntary commitments from some large chemical manufacturers and retailers to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, more quickly than the law requires. This is an important development, as HFCs are 10,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide in causing climate change.

There were several other important developments around the summit as well:

  • The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate issued a blockbuster report concluding that stopping climate change might not cost us anything. The crux of the analysis: Over the next 15 years, we’ll spend $90 trillion on new infrastructure world-wide anyway. Ambitious measures to combat climate change would add just 5% to that figure. When you factor in the benefits – like better public health from reduce air pollution – the measures will likely be net-positive for the economy.
  • New York City announced a major plan to increase the energy efficiency of buildings, which will set the city on target to curb its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 from 2005 levels. That’s the reduction that the UN has said industrialized countries must make to prevent catastrophic climate change.
  • The World Bank announced that 73 countries, 22 states, and over 1,000 businesses have pledged support for putting a price on carbon. The list includes the European Union and China, but not the U.S. It doesn’t provide any specifics on what anyone will do. Nor is it legally binding. But it’s a start.
  • The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, originally launched with Standard Oil money, led 180 institutions and hundreds of individuals in announcing that they will divest $50 billion in assets from fossil fuels.
  • Over 340 institutional investors worldwide that control at least $34 trillion in assets called on governments to put a price on carbon.
  • Google announced that it would sever ties with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) because of the group’s opposition to sound climate change policy. “Everyone understands climate change is occurring and the people who oppose it are really hurting our children and our grandchildren and making the world a much worse place,” Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said. “And so we should not be aligned with such people — they’re just, they’re just literally lying.” Public Citizen pointed out that by the same reasoning, Google should leave the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as well. Facebook soon announced that it too was leaving ALEC.

Ahead of the UN Summit, over 300,000 – and possibly as many as 400,000 – people joined the People’s Climate March in New York City. It was the largest climate demonstration in history, shattering the organizers’ goal of 100,000 participants. In addition to the march in New York, activists held 2,808 other events in 166 countries.

We also learned some bad news last week:

  • The Global Carbon Project reported that greenhouse emissions grew by 2.3 percent in 2013, demonstrating that we still have a long way to go in fighting climate change. We need to start moving in the opposite direction, quickly.
  • This past August was the hottest in recorded history. May and June also set new records, and April tied the record set in 2010.

So we have our work cut out for us. But we can solve this problem – and evidence is mounting that stopping climate change will benefit consumers and the economy, not hurt us. We just need to convince our governments to act. You can start by telling the EPA that you support its proposal to curb carbon pollution from existing power plants.

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