The Green Trail Behind the Red Tape
On August 3, 2015, President Obama and the EPA announced a historic and aggressive blueprint for a new era of energy for the United States, the Clean Power Plan. In the year since, the legislation has grown exponentially – not in infrastructure, but in paperwork. The Clean Power Plan remains immobile, at least until after the court case West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency is resolved.
The Clean Power Plan (CPP) enlists carbon regulations for current and future power plants, with the objective to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. It’s the first-ever U.S. legislation to set carbon pollution standards for power plants, while providing states and utilities flexibility in achieving compliance. The legislation organizes implementation into three basic blocks:
1) Make coal-fired power plants more efficient.
2) Use natural gas-fired power plants more effectively.
3) Expand nuclear and renewable energy.
No Play For Those Forced to "Stay"
The Environmental Protection Agency’s online page for the Clean Power Plan currently says this:
On February 9, 2016, the Supreme Court stayed implementation of the Clean Power Plan pending judicial review. The Court’s decision was not on the merits of the rule. EPA firmly believes the Clean Power Plan will be upheld when the merits are considered because the rule rests on strong scientific and legal foundations.
The February ruling brought President Obama’s strides towards climate action to a halt. What is a “stay,” exactly? A stay of execution is a court order to temporarily suspend the execution of a court judgment or other court order. For the EPA, this means a halt to implementation of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, pending the resolution of the court case.
And who represented the opposition? With coal producer West Virginia and oil producer Texas at the frontlines, a coalition of 28 states condemned the Clean Power Plan the day it was published in the Federal Register.
In response to the Supreme Court’s February decision, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey had this to say: “Make no mistake – this is a great victory for West Virginia…We are thrilled that the Supreme Court realized the rule’s immediate impact and froze its implementation, protecting workers and saving countless dollars as our fight against its legality continues.”
The opposition believes strongly that the EPA is overstepping its authority in demanding carbon regulations from utilities through the Clean Air Act.
The Senate's Renewable Energy Solution? Forest Burning...
According to Eduardo Porter of The New York Times’ Economic Scene, President Obama’s Clean Power Plan isn’t just in danger in the courtroom. The legislation’s authority could dissolve in a matter of weeks by “an unlikely bipartisan collection of senators,” including a mix of Republican climate change deniers and supportive Democrats.
What’s the big deal? Well, this group of senators intends to accept forest burning for electricity as a “carbon neutral” activity. Also called biomass burning, its supporters believe that as long as forests are regrown, organic matter pulled from a forest should be considered a “renewable energy source.”
The proposal was introduced by Maine’s senators, Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent. It is an amendment to the Senate version of the energy bill passed earlier this year. This amendment will determine that any carbon emitted from biomass burning wouldn’t be calculated, thus impacting future deployment of the Clean Power Plan, as seen in the graph below. With biomass included as “carbon neutral” in this bill, less renewable energy would be developed in the implementation of a future Clean Power Plan.
The basis of their thinking on “neutrality” is correct; but it’s as correct as if Ferris Bueller presented at a science fair. Clearly, they all skipped bio lab. Sure, forests regrow. But in order to achieve the amount of carbon mitigation this legislation implies, it would take a really, really, really long time.
“It’s a double whammy, because you remove an active sink that was sucking carbon out of the air,” said Mary S. Booth, director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity to The New York Times. “Under the most conservative assumptions you are worse off for 40 to 50 years.”
And how worse off, exactly? The Times reports that the biomass proposal would add at least 620 million metric tons into the atmosphere, from now until 2030. This breaks down to 48 million additional tons a year. It would also leave the US 330 million tons short of its Paris Agreement promises. As one of the world’s biggest polluters, this could jeopardize the integrity of the entire global treaty, despite its recent celebrated ratification.
According to the Times, the biomass proposal could become law in a matter of weeks.
The Green Trail Behind the Red Tape
Money and politics. No one’s a fan. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, more than 80% of Americans believe the government cannot be trusted, and that the influence of special-interest money fuels distrust. And in the wake of the Clean Power Plan’s courthouse capture, it’s not just the legislation that’s scrutinized. Reporters and fellow Senators have analyzed the CPP’s political opposition. It’s up to you to decide if they are truly climate deniers, or merely political pawns.
In response to the Supreme Court’s February decision to “stay” the Clean Power Plan, Senators Sheldon Whitehouse, Harry Reid, Barbara Boxer, and Edward J. Markey submitted a report meant to resemble an amicus curiae brief, entitled “The Brief No One Filed.” In case you’d like to boost your cocktail vocabulary, this means literally “a friend of the court.” More specifically, amicus curiae briefs are submitted to court to offer information that can bear on the case at hand.
According to the report, prominent Republican leaders used to acknowledge the existence of human-made climate change, and have since changed their tone, drastically. Their polarization coincides with the Supreme Court’s decision in the now-famous Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which allowed energy interests to exert unlimited financial influence in Congress.
According to the University of Massachusetts, Koch Industries was the 22nd largest carbon emitter, and has pledged to spend $750 million to influence the federal and state elections in the 2016 cycle. The biggest way Koch Industries does so is through influencing Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a political front group. AFB warned that if Republicans supported a carbon tax or climate regulations: they would “be at a severe disadvantage in the Republican nomination process.”
Actually, the Koch Brothers are at risk of severe “disadvantage”: $700 billion per year, in fact. A working paper by the International Monetary Fund finds that the U.S. fossil fuel industry receives the biggest subsidy “the world has ever seen.” Another way one can look at it is the social cost of carbon that fossil fuel industry currently isn’t paying, thanks to estimates provided by the Federal Office of Management and Budget. This “social cost” accounts for a range of economic damages directly linked to carbon pollution, including changes in net agricultural activity, human health, property damages due to extreme weather, etc. For the fossil fuel industry, it tallies to $275 billion, an expense currently paid in full by our government.
And does this fervent climate denial even reflect the populations these politicians represent? Research finds that no, it doesn’t. According to a 2016 election poll conducted by the Associated Press and University of Chicago’s NORC Center, 65% of Americans say climate change is a problem the U.S. government should address and 80% believe the government should honor its Paris Agreement commitments.
We can narrow our lens even further. Take Texas – the territory of Senator Ted Cruz, an avid climate change denier. A Citizen Cabinet survey found 68 percent of Texan registered voters favor the Clean Power Plan, with 79 percent seeing the value in the legislation’s projected health benefits.
Florida has a similar story. One of the Clean Power Plan’s opponents, Representative Jeff Miller, made this statement at a speaking event in Pensacola:
“…It wasn’t just a few years ago, what was the problem that existed? It wasn’t global warming, we were gonna all be an ice cube. We’re not ice cubes. Our climate will continue to change because of the way God formed the earth.”
That same Citizen Cabinet survey found 68 percent of Floridian registered voters favor the Clean Power Plan, with 76 percent seeing value in its projected health benefits.
The story goes on and on and on:
- The Attorneys General for the Clean Power Plan opposition? Over $19 million in fossil fuel special interest funding.
- The Trade Associations associated? $12 million in funding.
- Even the climate denying scientists who testified? Yes. You guessed it. They are all directly associated to the fossil fuel industry, especially through ties to the Heartland Institute, an organization at the forefront of climate change skepticism in the U.S., and is often tied to special interest funding.
We Shouldn't Have to Pay to Play
I am by no means touting the Clean Power Plan as model legislation, nor am I making a statement of Republicans versus Democrats. I merely use this legislation’s court case as an example of how the fossil fuel industry is able to influence the decisions of our politicians in a dramatic manner. It is clear that the fossil fuel industry’s sway has the power to imperil our country from an opportunity to finally take a stand on the biggest problem we’ve ever faced.
Let’s not be nudged, swayed, or bullied any longer. I encourage you to contact your state representatives and let them know that you are taking a stand on biomass burning, as well as the efficacy of the Paris Agreement. And lastly, tell them that it is past time to get money out of politics. Senator Whitehouse is the lead sponsor of the DISCLOSE Act – which is, of course, another awesome acronym, “Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections” Act of 2015. Other sponsors include the report’s additional politician-writers, Senators Reid, Boxer, and Markey. Help us spread the word that its time all politicians #DISCLOSE. The clock is ticking.