It’s not easy to get a reduction in air pollution in this country. There are powerful lobbying efforts behind the energy industry, and cutting back on the use of coal means the loss of coal mining jobs in some economically challenged states. Yet, when the Obama Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced in early June 2014 that there would be a 30 percent reduction in air pollution over the next 15 years, even environmentalists had to sit up and take notice.
The big deal
It’s well known that this administration has been pushing for clean energy alternatives, and the key to cleaner air (and less asthma and other respiratory illnesses) in the United States is a reduction of carbon dioxide, the source of greenhouse gas. In this country, one third of the air pollution from these gases is the result of about 400 coal-burning plants. (Together they create about 40 percent of the nation’s electricity.)
Devil is in the details
While reducing these emissions by 30 percent (even after such a long period, 15 years) would be real progress. However, it turns out that the devil is in the details, and the compromise that no one is mentioning (the spin) in Washington, DC, is that the reduction is based on figures starting from 2005 (not 2014).
Of course, back in 2005, these plants were producing much more pollution, and so the real reduction is something like half of what is being predicted, based on current data. In part that is due to the natural evolution in which many of these power plants have switched for economic reasons from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas.
Confusing hodgepodge of state standards
Adding to the confusion about what the real results are is another situation that some may find baffling…or at least skewed. That is, not all states have the same goals. Coal-dependent states like Kentucky and West Virginia will only need to reduce emissions by 10 to 20 percent over this time period, while states like Oregon and Washington will be in the 40 to 50 percent range.
Many probably will remember the cap-and-trade idea of 2009, which actually passed the House of Representatives. That bill had real meat on its bones and would have lowered carbon emissions by as much as 80 percent. Ironically, the bill was defeated in the Senate by Midwestern Democrats, never to see the light of day. What remains is a far cry from what could have been. In the words of Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a sponsor of that bill, “We missed out on a solution that would’ve solved the country’s carbon emission problems for two generations.” Now, it appears, all we have left is spin.