Carbon Nation: Pittsburgh will host hearings on EPA's emission-reduction plan | Green Light | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Carbon Nation: Pittsburgh will host hearings on EPA's emission-reduction plan

If enacted, the rule would be the first national attempt to limit carbon emissions

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On July 31 and Aug. 1, Pittsburgh will be one of four U.S. cities to host public hearings on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's proposed rule to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. Hundreds will testify at all-day sessions at Downtown's William S. Moorhead Federal Building, the comments largely familiar, since the plan was announced June 2.

Environmentalists will support the rule for its health benefits, and to arrest climate change. "Big Coal" — whose facilities produce 75 percent of power-plant carbon — will attack the rule with predictions of lost jobs and higher energy prices.

If enacted, the rule would be the first national attempt to limit carbon emissions, the main source of the greenhouse gasses behind climate change. But it's easy to miss two important facts. One, hitting the rule's emissions target is pretty easy. Two, hitting it won't get us very far on climate change.

The EPA's hopefully named Clean Power Plan would require states to cut carbon emissions from power plants so that by 2030 they'd drop 30 percent from 2005 levels. States can do this however they choose: by making their plants more efficient (or switching from coal to gas, which emits half the carbon); by moving to renewable or nuclear energy; or by simply using less energy through efficiency and conservation.

Thirty percent sounds like a lot. But in fact, we're already halfway there: Last year, according to federal figures, U.S. power plants emitted 15 percent less carbon than in 2005. That partly reflects reduced reliance on coal: Natural gas is cheaper. It also reflects shrunken demand: Electricity use peaked in 2007 and has dropped since. Such trends suggest the target might almost meet itself.

In Pennsylvania, the drop in electric usage was surely aided by Act 129, the 2008 law requiring the state's electricity distributors to reduce consumption; distributors like Duquesne Light offered everything from discounted compact fluorescent light bulbs to rebates on efficient appliances and home energy audits. State law also requires that a certain percentage of the state's energy mix be from renewables, like wind and solar.

But even in coal-dependent Pennsylvania, meeting the EPA's target might require only modest efforts. Last year, for instance, Akron, Ohio-based First Energy closed two aging, coal-burning plants in Southwestern Pennsylvania, Hatfield's Ferry and Mitchell; First Energy President James H. Lash blamed the closures on market forces. Robert Altenburg, a senior energy analyst for environmental group PennFuture, says that closures of other old plants could mean that by 2020, Pennsylvania will have half as many coal-fired units as in 2012, Clean Power Plan or no.

In fact, a 30 percent cut is unambitious enough that even some power generators are taking it in stride. "FirstEnergy believes it is in a strong position to meet the requirements in the proposed rule," company spokeswoman Stephanie Walton told the Associated Press in June.

Tom Schuster, a Sierra Club staffer based in Johnstown, says that Pennsylvania could easily do much more. It could further boost efficiency by, say, lifting Act 129's spending cap. And it could raise the bar for renewables from a measly 8 percent of the state's electricity by 2021 to levels comparable to, say, New Jersey and Maryland, which will require 20 percent or more in a similar time frame.

Even as is, the Clean Power Plan — by cutting the soot and smog from burning coal — will mean more breathable air. Nationally, "[l]iterally thousands of lives will be saved because of it," and "hundreds of thousands of asthmas attacks" will be avoided, says Dr. George Leikauf, a professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

But the climate's a different story. To avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, scientists say, by 2050 we need to cut at least 80 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions from 2000 levels. In the power sector alone — which accounts for just 40 percent of U.S. emissions — the Clean Power Plan gets us less than one-third of the way there. At best, the Plan is only a start, though one that might give the U.S. a little leverage in convincing China and India to cut their own burgeoning emissions.

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