We’re Halfway to Meeting Obama’s Clean Power Plan

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Would Baltimore's own "coal hibachi" Crane power plant in Dundalk shut down under Obama's Clean Power Plan? Photo taken at Sierra Club's kayak trip this weekend.
Would Baltimore’s own “coal hibachi” Crane power plant in Dundalk shut down under Obama’s Clean Power Plan? Photo taken at Sierra Club’s kayak trip this weekend.

Obama’s final Clean Power Plan launched this week like a consumer product. It was great to see Mother Nature and her amazing product, our environment, get the respect she deserves.  The White House had their ducks-in-a-row: a live announcement, clever social media and marketing support, and a well-scripted list of health, economic and environmental benefits. The Clean Power Plan (CPP) is significant, though it’s one effort on a long list of Obama greenhouse gas emission reductions. With political will, new technologies, and a worldwide shift to sustainable energy, we may possibly keep global warming to 2℃, and not cook ourselves to death.

What’s the CPP skimmer version? Though six power plant contaminants are regulated under the Clean Air Act, carbon dioxide (CO2) was not.  The EPA will now regulate CO2 emissions from power plants by setting state specific limits. The estimated goal is to cut CO2 emissions 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. States execute the federal strategy as they see fit based on each state’s CO2 goals. The White House’s Climate Power Plan is extensive, and a few key points are covered below.

Cool CPP Facts

1. We’re already halfway there. Choosing 2005 as the baseline year was intentional. As the graph below illustrates, our country’s CO2 declined 15 percent between 2005 to 2013. Four factors came together to tamp down U.S. carbon dioxide emissions: the recession, energy conservation, fracking and renewable energy. The first two reduced electricity demand, and the last two sparked the transition from coal to cheap fracked gas and renewables.

Demand reduction, fracked natural gas and renewables tamped down U.S. CO2 levels since 2005.
Demand reduction, fracked natural gas and renewables tamped down U.S. CO2 levels since 2005. Source: U.S. EIA.

2. CPP Cuts overall U.S. CO2 by 6 percent. Coal-fired power plants account for 31 percent of U.S. CO2 emissions. If the additional 20 percent cuts play out, the CPP drives a 6 percent CO2 reduction. Next on the EPA’s hit-list: industrial and agriculture emissions. 

3. The Mighty EPA. Even with Congress hell-bent on keeping the status quo, Obama used the EPA’s authority granted by the Supreme Court to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by: raising vehicle gas milage, lowering new power plant emissions, eliminating some fracking methane leakage, tightening power plant mercury standards, and raising appliance standards through the ENERGY STAR program. Add the Clean Power Plan to this list. 

4. U.S. as a Leader, not a Polluter. This fall’s big U.N. climate conference in Paris, a.k.a COP21/CMP11, will hopefully produce a collective agreement on drastically reducing worldwide fossil fuel emissions. Finally, the U.S. and China are stepping up to leadership roles and not being the usual out-of-touch-ain’t-gonna-help-fat-cats. Our two countries are the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases, and both have pledged to reduce CO2 by 30 percent by 2030. Good thing as 2015 global temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere are the highest ever, and jumped by a stunning 0.36°F. As Obama stated yesterday, “this is a key challenge in our lifetime.” 

5. Asthmatics Cheer! CPP also firmed up sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollutants.  Obama mentioned several times in his White House announcement CPP’s concrete public health benefits. Baltimore should cheer as 20 percent of our kids suffer from asthma (twice the national average), which is made worse by power plant emissions. Another Charm City cheer is that our older dinosaur plants with limited pollution controls may finally shut down. Though only used on “peak” days, the Crane plant in Dundalk is basically a coal hibachi spewing plumes of sulfur dioxide and smog (see chart below) in the sky for its neighbor to breathe.

Sierra Club's Sulphur Dioxide Plume Map Shows the area of sulphur dioxide pollution around the Dundalk Crane coal-fired power plant.
Sierra Club’s Sulphur Dioxide Plume Map Shows the area of sulphur dioxide pollution around the Dundalk Crane coal-fired power plant.

6. Switching from Coal to Renewables, Not Fracked Natural Gas: A major change in the final CPP was an incentive plan for states to switch to renewable energy instead of fracked natural gas. We recently posited that just switching from coal to fracked natural gas doesn’t solve global warming. Fracking leaks methane, a more potent greenhouse gas, at rates twice as high as previously thought. Reducing CO2 and increasing methane globally isn’t smart and cannibalizes capital from converting to clean energy.

Obama’s Clean Power Plan is a bold and decisive effort to get America in the game of fixing global warming. Opposition by power plant operators and fossil fuel interests is and will be fierce. They even launched advertising today. As we wait for the Paris climate negotiation’s outcome, consider your role as an individual to conserve and save energy. There’s no Planet B.

Laurel Peltier
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Laurel Peltier

Laurel writes the environmental GreenLaurel column every other Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of UVA's MBA program, she spends her time with her family and making "all things green" interesting.
Laurel Peltier
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