Three ways the EPA carbon emissions plan will benefit Iowa, plus Iowa political reaction

Yesterday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rolled out a proposed rule to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. The full text of the rule and several short fact sheets are available on the EPA’s website. Click here to read EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy’s speech about the new policy. This fact sheet makes the short and sweet case for targeting power plants, “the largest source of carbon pollution in the U.S.” The new policy goal is to “cut carbon pollution from the power sector by 30 percent from 2005 levels” by the year 2030. Other associated benefits: cutting levels of soot and smog in the air by over 25 percent in 2030, and saving money and lives through reducing air pollution. In fact, the EPA estimates $7 in health benefits for every dollar spent to implement the new policy.

While some in the environmental community were hoping for more aggressive carbon reduction targets, the new rule would be a big step in the right direction. For too long, elected officials in Iowa and nationally have ignored evidence that we need to address climate change. Furthermore, coal’s “assault on human health” is immense and under-appreciated.

Iowa political reaction to yesterday’s news was mostly disappointing but not surprising. I’ve enclosed noteworthy comments at the end of this post. But first, let’s examine three reasons Iowans should embrace the EPA’s new rule.  

1. Iowa can’t afford to do nothing about climate change, and power plants are the country’s largest source of greenhouse gas pollution.

Iowa may not be among the global locations most vulnerable to climate change, but scientists have documented that climate change is already affecting our state through increased precipitation and severe weather. Floods incur huge costs to agriculture and urban infrastructure. A warmer climate also makes drought and heat worse in dry years, doing more harm to the Iowa economy. A comprehensive report by the Iowa Climate Change Advisory Council outlined dozens of ways we could reduce carbon emissions, many of which would produce “a net cost savings or benefit for each ton of CO2 reduced for these policies, even without accounting for benefits associated with CO2 reductions.”

Congress has failed to address this issue. The “cap and trade” climate change bill approved by the U.S. House in 2009 was far too weak, and even in that pathetic form couldn’t pass the U.S. Senate. Multiple courts have affirmed the EPA’s power to regulate carbon emissions, as it regulates many other forms of emissions. It’s only logical for the EPA to tackle the country’s largest source of carbon pollution.

2. The rule will help Iowans stay healthy and reduce premature deaths.

Estimates vary, but Iowa generates roughly 60 percent of its electricity through coal. That’s well above the national rate of 38 percent of electricity generated from coal combustion. According to this federal government website on Iowa’s energy profile, our state’s five largest power plants are all coal-fired. In addition,

Iowa’s coal consumption for electricity generation ranks among the top one-third of states despite its small population. Because of Iowa’s reliance on coal for electricity generation, the state is among the top 10 states in the nation in its use of coal per capita. Almost all of the coal consumed in the state is low-sulfur coal brought into Iowa by rail from Wyoming and delivered to electric power generators.

Coal combustion and coal ash disposal take a tremendous toll on human health through asthma and other serious lung problems, heart disease, strokes, and cancers. A mapping study on Iowa Coal and Health found,

Ninety-two percent of Iowans live within 30 miles of a coal plant, and almost one out of three Iowa children attend school in close proximity to a coal plant. Additionally, Iowa is home to several of the oldest, least efficient and most polluting coal burning power plants in the nation, those grandfathered and exempted from stricter emissions limits after passage of the Clean Air Act in 1977.

Click here to read that study in full.

Speeding up Iowa’s transition from coal to other ways of generating electricity will lead to fewer chronic illnesses like asthma and fewer early deaths in our state.

3. The rule will benefit Iowa’s economy.

Business groups have always warned that environmental rules would wreck the economy, but as EPA Administrator McCarthy pointed out yesterday, they’ve consistently been wrong. Predictably, the National Association of Manufacturers has already blasted the rule, as did the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Koch brothers-financed group Americans for Prosperity. Notably, many major utility companies have been preparing for carbon limits for a long time. MidAmerican Energy was already planning to convert a large power plant in the Quad Cities to natural gas next year. Iowa’s other major investor-owned utility provided this comment to the Des Moines Register,

Alliant Energy said it’s well-positioned to meet the requirements. “We knew these carbon regulations were coming, so we’ve been incorporating it into our generation plan. We’re at a good starting point,” said Scott Reigstad, a spokesman for Alliant Energy, an investor-owned utility based in Madison, Wis., serving 1.4 million customers in Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Several other Iowa power companies have also started moving away from coal combustion, either switching to natural gas or retiring coal-fired plants and building more wind energy farms. Click through for more details.

Although Americans for Prosperity’s state director Mark Lucas claimed yesterday that the EPA rules would be “particularly burdensome in Iowa” because we rely so much on coal, EPA officials told the Des Moines Register,

Iowa power plants would be required to cut carbon emissions 16 percent by 2030, a lower burden than the national average because of the state’s investment in renewable energy development and energy efficiency, under a proposed rule from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Iowa has already been doing its part,” said Liz Purchia, an EPA spokeswoman, said Monday.

In fact, the rule would create jobs in other parts of the energy sector:

Iowa could see 2,500 more jobs with a standard focused on increased energy efficiency, the Natural Resources Defense Council said.

The state leads the nation in the amount of energy it gets from wind, about 27 percent of its total portfolio, according to a wind industry group.

“Wind power helped attract Google, Facebook, IBM and Microsoft, in addition to the thousands of wind power jobs in our state,” said state Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids. “Energy efficiency is saving Iowa consumers billions of dollars in energy costs.”

Environmental Entrepreneurs, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group, said Iowa added 1,600 clean energy and energy-efficiency jobs since 2012 and will “create thousands more” with the proposed rule.

“Iowa already is a national leader in clean energy,” said Troy Van Beek, founder of Ideal Energy, a solar company based in Fairfield. “If we want to remain a national leader and keep creating good, clean energy jobs in our state, we need our state officials to implement a strong plan to implement these new EPA standards.”

Iowa-based manufacturers of wind turbine components would also benefit if other states focus on renewable energy production to meet carbon reduction goals.

Finally, Iowa currently sends hundreds of millions of dollars out of state every year to import coal. Moving away from coal combustion would keep more of that money in state.

Iowa political reaction

Governor Terry Branstad’s knee-jerk reaction to yesterday’s news demonstrated that neither he nor his staff understand even the broad outlines of the EPA rule.

Jimmy Centers, a spokesman for Gov. Terry Branstad, called the plan “unilateral” and “ideological.”

“Now the EPA is set to mandate more government red tape that will lead to higher prices for Iowa consumers and make it more difficult to attract manufacturing jobs to our state,” Centers said.

The EPA is giving states so many options for meeting the goals, I don’t know how anyone could describe the policy as “unilateral.” Stakeholders will have ample opportunity to shape Iowa’s approach.

EPA won’t finalize the proposed rule until June 2015. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has one year and one month after that to work with stakeholders to develop the state plan.

Stakeholders would include the Iowa Utilities Board, utility leaders, the Iowa Attorney General consumer advocate, environmental groups and members of the public, said Marnie Stein, a environmental specialist senior at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Senator Chuck Grassley warned, “Utility costs could go up for customers around the country,” ignoring the possibility of cheaper energy through renewable sources. Naturally, he doesn’t consider the cost savings from fewer coal-related illnesses or lower energy consumption.

At least two Iowa elected officials welcomed yesterday’s EPA announcement: State Senator Rob Hogg, the Iowa legislature’s most vocal advocate for addressing climate change, and U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, who released this statement:

Harkin, Senate Leader in Push for Clean, Renewable Fuels; Welcomes Climate Change Proposal

‘Climate change is real and this proposal is a major action to address it’

WASHINGTON, D.C.-Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) today issued the following statement on the proposed rule released today by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  The proposal aims to reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants by 30 percent by 2030.  The draft rule will now will now go through an extensive public comment period and stakeholder feedback process before being finalized.

Harkin was an original cosponsor of the bipartisan Bingaman-Specter climate bill introduced in the Senate in 2007 and has been a long-time leader in the move toward clean, renewable fuels. He authored the first-ever energy title in the 2002 farm bill to promote the production and use of biofuels and biobased products,  and to support energy efficiency and renewable energy projects for farmers and rural small businesses.  The 2008 farm bill extended these energy programs, including the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) that has become hugely popular with farmers.   For background on Harkin’s renewable energy work, click here.

“Today’s announcement is a major step forward and I applaud the President and the EPA for this action.  Climate change is real, as we have seen by increased frequency of severe weather, in extended draughts and heat waves, in increases in heavy precipitation, and in flooding in Iowa and throughout the Midwest.  Today’s proposed rule will deliver a significant reduction in carbon pollution from our largest single source, and thus it represents a major action to address climate change.

“The last time major Clean Air Act regulations on air pollution took effect on the power sector in the 1990’s to limit emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and carbon monoxide; we were told that compliance would be an economic disaster.  Yet, the regulation had the opposite effect.  Environmental firms and small businesses generated $282 billion in new revenue and $40 billion in exports and supported 1.6 million new jobs.  There was no significant impact on electricity prices.  We are hopeful of the same, positive outcome from today’s announcement.

“We also know that renewables are rapidly expanding as effective and economic power supplies.  In Iowa, we get more than 25 percent of our electrical power from carbon pollution-free wind.  Moreover, our power companies have already begun to shut down some of the older, less efficient coal-burning power plants.

“What the Obama Administration is proposing is bold action.  It will take time to implement.  But I have no doubt that it is in the best interest of our climate and our country’s future.”

Raise your hand if you’re old enough to remember those controversies from the 1990s. Harkin is right: the doomsday predictions were wrong.

I didn’t see any press releases about the EPA rule from the four Iowans in the U.S. House.

Representative Bruce Braley has apparently decided to play it safe by saying nothing about carbon emissions while he runs to replace Harkin in the Senate. (In contrast, I’ve lost count of how many press releases Braley’s sent out in the last six months touting his work to save the Renewable Fuels Standard, which benefits Iowa biofuels manufacturers.) Once upon a time, Braley cared so much about climate change that he urged his colleagues to replace John Dingell with Henry Waxman as chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Now he’d rather fight less politically risky battles.

Representative Dave Loebsack (IA-02) sent an embarrassingly weak response to Ed Tibbetts of the Quad-City Times:

Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, said in an emailed statement that it was his hope the state could meet the new goal on its current path. But, he added, if it appears it will “hurt Iowans and raise energy rates, I will fight to increase flexibilities from the EPA, push for greater and more predictable support for our wind industry, and consider any commonsense fix from Congress.”

Give me a break. The EPA proposal is already so flexible for states–what more does Loebsack want?

Plus, he’s smart enough to know already that reducing greenhouse gas emissions and our reliance on coal will help Iowans. Then again, we’re talking about a congressman whose voting record on the environment has slipped steadily in recent years. In 2012, Loebsack even voted for a bill to “block the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other sources, and prevent rules on the storage and disposal of coal ash and limit Clean Water Act rules.” I expect more votes like that from Loebsack as House Republicans offer more anti-EPA legislation this summer and fall.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: In the comments, Bleeding Heartland user amscepboe points out that among the 50 states, Iowa has the fifth-lowest goal for reducing carbon emissions from power plants. I wish more of our political class would stop reflexively condemning everything the EPA does. Even if you don’t believe in the climate science, why wouldn’t self-styled “pro-lifers” embrace the goal of burning less coal so fewer people would die prematurely?

  • Iowa has it pretty easy

    we’re not only below the national average, we actually have the 5th-lowest goal (Vermont doesn’t have one).

    Percentage-wise, half the states have more than double Iowa’s goal.

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