Huddled in near-freezing temperatures on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in January 2013, observers might have been forgiven for neglecting to think about global warming. But when President Barack Obama stepped to the podium to take the oath of office and lay out his second-term agenda, he made clear that his priorities were squarely focused on the looming threat of climate change.
“We will respond to the threat of climate change,” he declared, “knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations … The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition, we must lead it.”
In August, Obama followed through on a large piece of that promise, issuing his landmark Clean Power Plan in an East Room ceremony with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy. “I am convinced that no challenge poses a greater threat to our future and future generations than a changing climate,” he said, praising the EPA’s two-year effort as “the single most important step America has ever taken in the fight against global climate change.”
The plan, by imposing state-by-state caps on carbon emissions, aims to achieve a 32 percent reduction in power plant pollution, dramatically reducing the negative effects of one of the nation’s largest sources of greenhouse gases.
Skeptics, however, have legitimate concerns that the plan’s prescribed carbon cuts rely on overly-optimistic projections that could sacrifice power grid reliability and good jobs for relatively small carbon reductions.
In most cases, it will be up to the individual states to decide how to strike the correct balance in meeting the plan’s strict pollution limits. Hitting emissions targets for the majority of states will include a mix of solutions that include converting coal facilities to natural gas, installing carbon-capturing technologies, and increasing reliance on renewable sources like solar and wind. Measures to increase energy efficiency and reduce power demand will also be factored into the equation.
“We’ve been involved since the beginning of this process,” said IBEW Utility Department Director Jim Hunter, “and thankfully, we were able to win some important concessions from the EPA to help preserve good-paying jobs and insure power grid reliability. It’s still far from perfect, but it took into account a lot of our concerns.”
The final rule issued in August is markedly different from the draft order circulated in July of last year. Thanks to input from third parties, including the IBEW, the EPA measure allows for the establishment of regional carbon-trading exchanges, where states whose emissions are lower than set limits could sell pollution credits to others unable to meet their goals.
“The trading programs offer the opportunity for expanded wind and solar power in places where those resources are abundant, and that increases the need for new transmission lines, which create jobs for IBEW members,” Hunter said.
Because devising balanced carbon-cutting proposals won’t be an easy task, the IBEW also successfully pushed for an extended timeline for states to submit their individual plans. In the final rule, states will be able to apply for two year-long extensions, theoretically giving them until 2018 to craft acceptable solutions.
Other IBEW-recommended changes were also implemented in the final plan, including giving states credit for zero-carbon nuclear plants in meeting targets and the addition of a short-term safety valve designed to keep critical coal plants open in order to protect power grid reliability.
“The safety valve is important,” Hunter said, “because we estimate the carbon cuts could lead to a loss of 56 gigawatts of power nationwide. This gives power-producers some short-term flexibility to make sure the lights stay on.”
Even with all of the changes, critics, including the IBEW, still have concerns that the president’s good intentions could have serious consequences in terms of good jobs lost.
An Economic Policy Institute study released in June suggested that the plan would have a positive net-job impact in the short term, but that longer-term prospects for well-paid union jobs diminish over the next decade.
“Obviously, our members’ jobs are still a huge concern to us,” Hunter said, “and we’re working with the Department of Energy and other impacted unions to make the president’s plan work for everyone.”
Just days after the final EPA rule was announced, Hunter was in Detroit with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and representatives from the Steelworkers and the Utility Workers unions establishing a working group designed to maximize job creation as the plan begins to be implemented.
“This partnership,” said IBEW International President Lonnie R. Stephenson, “will allow the Energy Department and energy industry professionals to provide input to help state officials develop implementation plans with an eye on maintaining grid reliability and good jobs.”
But that cooperation alone won’t remedy all the problems IBEW has with the White House’s emissions plan, Stephenson warned. “We’re still concerned about the effects of the EPA’s plan on our power system, which could result in higher energy prices and increased brownouts and blackouts.”
“The only real way to create a sustainable energy policy,” he said, “is for Congress to act in a bipartisan way with full input from experts and industry stakeholders. We will continue to press lawmakers to develop a long-term plan to protect energy jobs and maintain reliability and service for customers across the nation.”
Photo used under a Creative Commons License from Flickr user Jason Corneveaux.