President Obama’s Clean Power Plan is in trouble, both in the courts and politically. I believe that Plan is a lawful exercise of EPA’s regulatory power and deserves support from the public. But it is far more likely that by January 21, 2017 the new EPA Administrator will, at the direction of the White House, seek to rescind or eviscerate the Clean Power Plan because of both aversion to regulatory action in general and campaign promises to the coal industry. That would be a disaster for the U.S. (and global) environment since coal plant emissions are the largest single source of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions in our nation and our refusal to reduce them will lead other nations to slow their own efforts to cut GHG emissions. The resulting international reaction, perhaps including threatened carbon charges on U.S. exports, will put intense pressure on the White House to take climate change more seriously.
There is, however, a way for the new Administration to reduce GHG emissions even more effectively than the Clean Power Plan – and without EPA regulatory action. The White House could simply ask Congress for authority to purchase the nation’s approximately 350 operating coal plants and then promise to close half of them in five years and the balance in 10 years. Such a plan would do far more than the Clean Power Plan to eliminate coal as a major source of GHGs in the US, and would do it faster and with more certainty than EPA’s complex and potentially unenforceable regulations. Investors in renewable energy projects would also have a clear path forward, without the prospect of continued coal competition, so that such projects could once again accelerate even without large-scale subsidies.
This purchase alternative, which I call “Plan A,” could also be attractive both to existing coal plant shareholders and their workers. Coal plant shareholders and lenders now face the prospect of near-term loss of their entire investment as bankruptcies ripple across the nation’s coal fields. Workers too face near-term unemployment with or without the Clean Power Plan. Under Plan A, workers would receive generous compensation as part of the purchase of their plants, along with assistance in meeting outstanding mortgage, car loan and medical bills, scholarship assistance for themselves and their children at nearby community colleges and priority in filling jobs at new renewable energy projects.
Given the age and condition of the coal plants being purchased and the relatively small number of coal workers still active in the country, the total cost of this Plan A alternative would likely be less than or equal to the public health benefits that EPA estimated would result from closing down only a portion of those plants under the Clean Power Plan. In short, Plan A could be a win-win solution for GHG emissions without relying on EPA regulations but on Executive and Congressional action that would dramatically improve the global environment and challenge other nations to do the same.