EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt signed a measure to repeal the Clean Power Plan – a centerpiece of the federal government’s efforts to combat climate change. Pruitt’s action marks the start of a lengthy process to formally wind down the rule. We look at whether this merits the attention it deserves and what can be done about it.
Regulations are boring. The Clean Power Plan is a regulation. Hence the coverage of its repeal is falling beneath headlines on the NFL, fires in California and Harvey Weinstein revelations.
But the Clean Power Plan was also the key tool the federal government used to encourage renewables. As a result, it had the power to shape energy markets, stave off climate change, and improve the respiratory health of citizens.
What does the Clean Power Plan do?
In short, it sets carbon emissions targets for states. Using 2005 as a benchmark, states were told to reduce their emissions by a certain percentage by 2030.
This was to be achieved by providing incentives for renewable energies and costs for generation sites that produced higher carbon (notably: coal).
States would have the freedom to choose how they achieved their targets.
To understand what this debate is about, we need to understand the motives. Here is a quick primer.
Who are the key stakeholders in the repeal?
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt: Pruitt has the power to scrap the CPP. He is the former Attorney General of Oklahoma where his claim-to-fame was suing the EPA 14 times. Pruitt has a long record of denying climate change is man-made, and thereby a serious concern. Pruitt is a champion of fossil fuels and private enterprise.
Trump Administration: Donald Trump appointed Scott Pruitt. Donald Trump also initiated the United States’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.
Federal government: You might be surprised to know that the federal government has no energy policy. It does have a long-standing ethos of providing low-cost energy.
State governments: Because there is no federal energy policy, states take the lead on providing incentives/regulations that shape their individual markets. Note how different energy is in California compared to Kentucky.
Utilities: Utilitiy companies are the ones that would have to change their business to account for the CPP. They would do so by acquiring new assets like solar and wind, and closing down old assets like 40 year old coal plants. The CPP has not been implemented because of lawsuits brought to the Supreme Court that contend the regulation can not force utilities to acquire or develop new assets – they can only be told to regulate assets already owned.
Power generators: Solar, wind, natural gas, and coal developers all have a lot to gain or lose based on the outcome of this. We’ll cover this more in a second.
Climate advocates: Environmental coalitions will be leading the charge to counter Pruitt’s actions, both directly and indirectly.
How does the media cover the Clean Power Plan?
As we said, this is not a headline story. We’ll look at the New York Times and compare it to Fox News’s coverage. Notice how one side focuses heavily on the larger impacts of climate change and health studies. The other source focuses on the benefits this will bring to coal companies.
The New York Times has the most comprehensive article. Titled, “E.P.A. Announces Repeal of Major Obama-Era Carbon Emissions Rule” the article frames the debate in a political context. This carries on the narrative that the Trump administration guiding principle is to reverse Obama actions.
However, once the Times gets that out of the way, the rest of the article focuses on the fallout of this action. They answer questions such as “How would targets be changed?” And “What is the impact on emissions?”
Fox News has an article titled, “EPA’s Pruitt moves to repeal Obama-era Clean Power Plan.” See how little they differ from the NYTimes? It is framed as a political issue. But consider how New York Times readers can read their headline and groan, while Fox viewers can read the same headline and cheer. Same news – different tone – different reactions.
Despite the similarities in ledes, the Fox article provides very little context or depth. The article is constructed around quotes from Scott Pruitt following an interview he granted to Fox News:
“The president made a promise to the American people that the EPA would not be an agency that picks winners and losers as we generate electricity in this country,” Pruitt told Fox News’ “Special Report with Bret Baier” Tuesday night. “The [Obama] administration made a commitment to declare a war on coal. And effective yesterday and today, that war is over.”
There are more sprinkled throughout the brief article. Fox does not address the dubiousness of these claims.
The final paragraph is a response from the Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune. In the context of this article, readers would assume Brune is eager to wage war on jobs and struggling coal miners.
Will repealing this change my life?
Back during the Obama administration, the EPA created a list of benefits that would occur under the Clean Power Plan:
- Health benefits of $34 to $54 billion a year by 2030.
- Reduce soot and smog by 20% by 2030
- Avoid 1,500 to 3,600 premature deaths
- Avoid 90,000 asthma attacks in children
- Avoid 1,700 heart attacks
- Reduce electricity bills $7 a month by 2030
The cost to implement the plan was $8.4 billion.
Those were mostly direct health benefits and cost-savings in the form of utility bills.
Here is a video put out by former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy explaining the plan in 2015.
Notice how different the tone is here from the interview with Pruitt above. Same agency, same science, different administration.
Will repealing the Clean Power Plan change my country?
To be clear, renewable energy technology costs are plummeting. Financially, solar makes more sense than coal plants in many parts of the country. The future economy will have lower emissions.
Environmentalists are concerned that it will be too little too late.
Renewable energy advocates are concerned that the U.S. is ceding leadership in the market to foreign nations. China has the scale to set the table for 21st century energy markets.
Some states, like New York and California were slated to exceed any federal targets. This is because they have active state governments that are keen to allowing renewables.
Other states, with high dependencies on fossil fuels, are more likely to be impacted. Removing regulations allows coal plants to linger longer. Many fossil fuel developers see the writing on the wall – their time is limited. But having an actionable regulation would have introduced renewables into harder to reach states like Kentucky, Pennsylvania and West Virginia much sooner.
What can I do?
There will be a public comment period following Pruitt’s action. As of today, that forum is not set up. We will update you when it becomes available. Taking part in the public comment period allows you to speak directly to those crafting this rule or the one that follows it. Whether you support or oppose the action, take part.
You can also take action by bringing attention to this issue. Notice how it is not a headline story. Take a few minutes to write to your local or state newspaper. You can draw attention to whether this would create/hurt jobs in your state, the health impacts, the climate science, the role of government, renewable energy trends, etc. Refer to our “How to Write a Letter to the Editor” guide to get it done.