Carbon Rules Show Bad Arithmetic

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by Michael Grunwald,

from TIME Magazine,

Why the numbers in the President’s Clean Power Plan don’t add up.

President Obama’s Clean Power Plan–his Administration’s historic proposal to regulate carbon emissions from power plants, hyped by supporters and detractors alike as a revolution in climate-change action–just doesn’t add up.

I say this with some hesitation, even some embarrassment. During Obama’s first term, while environmentalists kept complaining that he wasn’t talking enough about global warming, I kept writing that he was doing more about global warming than anyone who ever lived. His stimulus bill was launching a clean-energy boom.

But while the enviros who spent years trashing Obama’s “climate silence” are now hailing his Clean Power Plan as his crowning climate legacy, I’m underwhelmed. The EPA says that by 2030, it will reduce emissions from power plants 30% from their 2005 levels, but that’s just a forecast–and U.S. power plants are already nearly halfway to that goal. Some of the other forecasts in the 645-page draft are even less ambitious. In general, the forecasts in the plan would, if anything, undershoot the current pace of decarbonization in electricity.

I discussed my doubts with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, a certified climate hawk, who offered several explanations for her plan’s apparent squishiness. The goal, she suggested, was to fashion a plan that could withstand legal and political challenges and to require “what’s doable, reasonable and practical,” not what’s ideal.

“I don’t want to scare any state away. I don’t want to spend years negotiating about what’s achievable,” McCarthy told me. “I want to get this off the ground.”

This helps explain the green movement’s enthusiasm. Enacting carbon rules, any carbon rules, will send a powerful signal to the market about dirty power, especially as the Administration cracks down on coal ash, ozone and other pollutants. It will add uncertainty to the electricity industry’s investment decisions. And it will encourage the rest of the world to follow the U.S.’s lead in international climate negotiations.

My question was: If this plan is so disruptive, why does it predict that in 2030, we’ll still get over 30% of our power from coal? McCarthy’s answer was, in effect: It’s wrong. “These numbers represent the minimum. I think we’ll end up with a much more aggressive impact.”

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Carbon Rules Show Bad Arithmetic