Obama’s Clean Power Plan Is Modest, But It Can Save the World

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell listens as U.S. President Barack Obama hosts a luncheon for bi-partisan Congressional leaders in the Old Family Dining Room at the White House in Washington, November 7, 2014.
Photo: Larry Downing/Reuters/Corbis

Kentucky really, really dislikes the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which requires every state to limit its power-plant emissions. The state has a law prohibiting it from complying with the plan through any system-wide changes. Its senior senator, Mitch McConnell, is leading a campaign of massive resistance nationwide. On the other hand, Kentucky might end up complying anyway. As Naveena Sadasivam reports, economic forces are closing enough power plants to likely bring the state’s emissions in under the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed targets. Cheap natural gas is replacing coal, and more than a quarter of the state’s coal-fired power plants have either shut down or are expected to within the next two years. It may actually wind up reducing its greenhouse-gas emissions of its own accord by more than what Obama’s socialistic bureaucrats would even require.

So, is the EPA’s plan, which sets emissions-reduction targets for every state, too weak? Is Kentucky crazy? Maybe neither.

In Politico, Mike Grunwald makes the case that the Clean Power Plan is pathetically feeble. Grunwald’s story is headlined, “5 reasons Obama’s transformative power plan won’t transform anything.” The core of his argument demonstrates that the emissions targets are “pretty weak.” What’s happening in Kentucky is fairly indicative of what’s happening in other states. The rapid decline of coal, and the rapidly falling price of solar power, are reshaping the energy mix faster than the EPA requires. “The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign is almost on schedule to achieve its goal of retiring every U.S. coal plant by 2030,” he suggests, “yet the EPA plan projects that 30 percent of our power will still come from coal that year.

Grunwald is right that Obama’s emissions targets are unambitious. He’s wrong that the plan won’t transform anything.

First, the political barriers to enacting the plan are steep. Phillip Wallach and Curtlyn Kramer at Brookings have a new paper analyzing the Clean Power Plan. Wallach and Kramer, unlike Grunwald, don’t analyze the economic costs of hitting the EPA’s targets. Instead, their paper examines the comments that the states have submitted in response to the EPA’s plan. There are lots of complaints, and even many Democratic states are angling for more favorable treatment. Their bracing conclusion is that, “given the range of concerns expressed by state environmental agencies, there is every reason to expect that serious difficulties await the final rule.”

Wallach and Kramer seem to be describing a completely different plan than the one Grunwald is, but they’re not. Even small emissions cuts can cause a political backlash. The downside of implementing a state-by-state plan to reduce emissions, rather than simply introducing sweeping national standards, is that it requires 50 different sets of negotiations. Even the bluest states have little incentive to just go along.

Second, the purpose of the Clean Power Plan is to set the stage for an international agreement. The U.S., which has emitted more greenhouse gases than any other country, is not going to have the standing to persuade developing economies to skip the cheap dirty energy path to industrialization it took unless it complies with its reduction targets. But as long as the U.S. can hit its targets — or make the case that it will — it can probably make the agreement it needs. Going beyond its targets won’t do much to help the negotiators in Paris this summer. Grunwald does concede, “The rules should also bolster Obama’s negotiators in this year’s global climate talks in Paris.” He allows this in a single sentence, but that is not incidental — it’s the whole point of the Clean Power Plan.

Third, there is room for growth. The emissions reductions likely to come out of this year’s agreement are going to be far too weak to limit severe effects of climate change. The targets are going to have to get more aggressive over time. Brad Plumer lays out lots of new ways the Obama administration, and a prospective Clinton administration, could ratchet down carbon emissions more in other areas.

But the Obama administration’s strategy is a template that, if successful, could be built upon in the future. The first step is to institute a creative new regulatory method and have it survive political and legal challenges. The next step is to leverage that plan into an international agreement. Once the framework is in place, it won’t be hard to tighten up the targets over time, especially if the cost of clean energy technology continues to fall — which, in recent years, has happened at an astonishing pace.

And this explains why the spokespeople for the coal industry are so determined to destroy Obama’s Clean Power Plan, gentle though it may be. Obama is starting the United States on a regulatory and diplomatic path that, if successful, will reshape its energy system. McConnell and the coal industry know that their best chance to defeat it is to strangle it in its crib.