Opinion

Clean Power Plan is an Opportunity for States

States shouldn’t run from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.  It is an opportunity to protect their citizens’ health and grow their economy through clean energy development.

As a former state environmental director, and a former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, I have seen states and EPA work together to solve tough air and water pollution challenges. I have seen EPA’s public health and environmental safeguards drive investments in new technologies and build whole new industries.  When EPA first proposed cleaner car tailpipe standards, everyone said it wasn’t possible, but it was. Today, cars are using third-generation catalytic converters and our air is cleaner.

States shouldn’t be fooled into ignoring the law, the Clean Air Act of 1990, or forgoing the opportunity presented by the Clean Power Plan. Indeed, many states are already reducing their carbon pollution, having made decisions to invest in solar, wind and energy efficiency. Some states have a long history with nuclear power, a carbon-free source of energy, and others have been taking advantage of market conditions to transition to natural gas.

In passing the Clean Air Act, Congress recognized the wisdom of giving states the flexibility and opportunity to create their own pollution reduction plans.  And states have done so in the past for dangerous pollutants such as soot and smog. Now, states will have the opportunity to write a plan that focuses on carbon pollution, a plan that will build on what is right for them and the work they have already done.

How did we get here? By following the science, and by following the law. In 2007, Massachusetts sued EPA to regulate greenhouse gases because it believed that rising sea levels subjected its coast to a “risk of catastrophic harm” that would be mitigated if the government took action. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed.  In fact, the Court ruled that if EPA determines that carbon pollution endangers public health and welfare, the agency is required to take steps to reduce that pollution. EPA did conclude, based on the best science, that carbon pollution endangers public health. The agency then began the process of establishing the requisite pollution standards.

The first standards were embodied in the Obama administration’s national car emissions program supported by industry, governors, environmentalists and labor unions. Under this standard, by 2025 the average fuel economy for each car company will be 54.5 miles per gallon. Today, when a consumer buys a new car, it is cleaner and more efficient. A gallon of gas goes further, saving families money at the pump. The key to the success of this standard was cooperation; everyone worked together, followed the science and the law, and found a path forward that provided certainty and flexibility to the car companies, as well as cleaner air for all.

The auto industry example is a good lesson for the power sector. The auto companies looked at the new standard as an opportunity to build better, more efficient and cleaner cars. They worked with EPA to ensure the requirements worked for the industry. And consumers responded.

While we are making real progress in reducing carbon pollution, there is more to be done, and it is only fair that all major sources of carbon pollution do their part – including the power sector. Industry needs to change its thinking on the Clean Power Plan, to stop considering it a burden and start making it into an opportunity.

How we make electricity is evolving, and regulatory policy should follow. I myself have changed my view on certain aspects of energy policy. Once, I opposed nuclear power. Now, with the climate impacts we are already seeing, I have come to view the existing nuclear fleet, which produces 23 percent of our baseload energy, as a key element to a low-carbon energy future. If we do not maintain these no-carbon energy sources and instead replace them with carbon-polluting sources, meeting our pollution reductions goals will get tougher, and might be even be impossible.

The key to meeting these goals is the built-in flexibility states will have to develop their own plans and to do what is best for their own consumers and industry. Some may look to efficiency; others to preserving existing carbon-free nuclear; still others may work across state lines to formulate regional reduction strategies or join with other states in existing agreements. California is already working to cut its carbon pollution. That state is achieving real reductions and generating revenue that is reinvested in local communities and more clean energy projects.

The science supporting the reality and seriousness of climate change is overwhelming.  Taking prudent steps to reduce the carbon pollution that contributes to climate change not only makes sense, it is required by law. And the cost of inaction will only grow.  Working with industry, stakeholders and others, governors can craft plans that provide the certainty and predictability needed to make investments that are both sound and environmentally friendly.

Again and again, when we have faced difficult environmental challenges in this country, there are those who suggest that we can’t meet the challenge, that finding good solutions would be impossible. But every time, good old American ingenuity and innovation rise to the occasion, and we find a better solution than we ever thought possible.

 

Carol M. Browner served as Environmental Protection Agency administrator from 1993-2001, as Florida’s Secretary of Environmental Regulation from 1991-1993, and as director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2011. She is also an Advisory Board member for Nuclear Matters.

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