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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Review of the US The Clean Power Plan


By George Harvey

On August 3, after months of public review of a draft proposal, President Obama unveiled the Clean Power Plan of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It had a few surprises, including taking a more stringent stand than the draft proposed. The final plan calls for a reduction of 32% in our carbon dioxide emissions from 2005 levels by 2030. This is a somewhat greater reduction than the 30% originally called for. The plan is also less supportive of natural gas than expected, and gives states a somewhat longer timetable for coming up with their own plans.

The plan was immediately attacked by the fossil fuel industry, along with its dependent utilities. It was also attacked by the states that are most dependent on fossil fuels in their economies, and sixteen states have banded together to fight it. Their claims are that it is illegal because the president had no authority to issue such a plan, it would require an act of Congress, it would be unconstitutional, and would cost too much to implement.

It might be good to take a look at the history of the issue.

In 1970, President Nixon undertook a series of steps to improve environmental protections. The Clean Air Act of 1970 was passed by Congress, and President Nixon proposed the EPA as an agency to implement it and Congress enacted it. In doing this, he was following a long tradition of environmental action undertaken by presidents in his party. Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant in 1864. In 1872, Grant created Yellowstone National Park, said to be the first national park in the world. Theodore Roosevelt created of the first federal wildlife refuge at Pelican Island in 1903. Eisenhower signed of the Clean Air Act in 1955. This is a tradition some in their party might well study today.

In 2003, the EPA determined that it had no authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. This quickly resulted in a lawsuit, Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, which was actually brought by fourteen states, along with a number of cities and environmental organizations. The purpose of the suit was to force the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide and some other greenhouse gases. In the case, the Supreme Court decided that the EPA’s 2003 determination was faulty, and it ordered the agency to review the matter. The EPA then determined that it had to regulate carbon dioxide and some other greenhouse gases, a position that was upheld by a court of appeals in 2007. The EPA recognized that climate change had been going on for at least half a century and needed to be regulated, and these views were upheld by the court.

The federal court determined that carbon emissions are dangerous and ordered the EPA to regulate them.

In 2010, the EPA issued a set of regulations on carbon emissions from power plants, industrial plants, and vehicles. These were immediately attacked in a lawsuit, Utility Air Regulatory Group v. Environmental Protection Agency. Here, the Supreme Court upheld the ability of EPA to regulate carbon emissions, to a point. The court was divided into three camps on this, with different dissenting voices on different parts of the decision. Nevertheless, the EPA’s ability to regulate emissions from large plants was confirmed. What was not confirmed was its ability to regulate carbon emissions from small plants, including most vehicles. The dividing line is a potential to emit 250 tons per year of any pollutant. To give an idea of what this means, 250 tons of carbon dioxide is produced by burning 25,000 gallons of oil; an industrial plant does not have to be very big to burn that much. The ruling was issued in 2014. Following these court actions, the EPA had no choice but to regulate emissions from the utility industry.

The authority of the EPA to govern carbon emissions was confirmed by the Supreme Court in 2014.

The Clean Power Plan is a high-level blueprint on how the regulation of carbon emissions is to be done. It establishes quotas for each state, but gives the states the right to come up with their own plans detailing how to achieve them. Alaska, Hawaii, and Vermont are exceptions, for different reasons; in Vermont’s case, there are no fossil fuel plants in the state, so there is nothing to regulate.

Senator McConnell, from Kentucky, is leading opposition to compliance. He has told leadership in various states that they should not to respond. The EPA’s position is that any state that fails to come up with its own plan will have a plan imposed on it.

Another response came from Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations. He gave praise for the plan, because it shows that the United States is prepared to take a strong leadership role on climate change prior to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December.

Another response is perhaps more interesting. Republican presidential candidates have not said much in favor of limiting carbon emissions. As they campaigned in New Hampshire and South Carolina, pollsters asked those voters who were likely to vote in the Republican primary for their views. It turns out that over half of those polled support the Clean Power Plan, and 60% believe it is important to reduce carbon emissions.

We support the Clean Power Plan. (We are assured that Bernie does, too.)

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