I've been holding off commenting on the new coal regulations announced by the EPA this past Monday. The reason is because the regulation has nothing to do with the reality of global warming. The science remains the same with, or without the proposed regulations.
However, I also like to discuss actions we can take to address the problems we are facing and the emission of greenhouse gases is certainly a problem that needs to be addressed. So, the question is, does the new proposed regulations address the problem? I have been reviewing what is being said and, to no surprise, both sides of the argument are making extreme predictions, neither of which seems to be holding up to the light of day.
First, I really see no evidence this will make a significant change in our greenhouse emissions. Headlines are saying it will reduce our emissions by 30%, but that isn't true. What it will do is cut emissions from new construction power plants by 30% compared to the 2005 levels. Power plants have already reduced emissions by about 13% compared to 2005 levels, so we are talking about an additional 17% reduction. These regulations apply only to new power plants and not to any existing power plants or other sources of greenhouse gas emissions, such as cars. In the total picture, that comes out to about a 6% cut. And, that is over a 15-year period. Notice that the 17% reduction occurred without any new EPA regulations. They occurred because of market forces, so it is reasonable to assume that further reductions would occur without these new regulations.
Also, it isn't even necessary to actually make the cuts. States can make their own plans and combine the power plants with something else. So, if some industry is making reductions anyway it is possible to combine them with the power plants and the power plants can then go their merry way. To make it even worse, states are allowed to join together in one big plan. So, the reduction could be taking place in one state and the coal-fired plant could be in another.
Based on that, I have to say this is getting a lot more attention than it deserves.
But, what about the draconian predictions of the groups opposed to the proposed regulations?
Again, I just don't see it. They are saying this will make electricity more expensive and cause a loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs. The US Chamber of Commerce is predicting a loss of 224,000 jobs PER YEAR for the next 15 years. That comes out to 3,360,000 total jobs and that number is just not credible on the surface. I would want to see some serious estimates before I accept a figure like that.
Why am I so critical of that estimate? Simple. The demand for electricity is sky-rocketing in this country. If we are not building coal-fired plants, we will build something else. The electrical utilities will find a way to supply the electricity demanded because that is what they are in business to do. Supplying electricity means profit. They are not going to sit back and allow potential profits to go away without doing something about it.
And, as it turns out, we are developing better ways to generate electricity than burning coal. Natural gas is not great, but it is much better than coal and we have a very serious boom in natural gas production going on in this country. We have the ability to replace all of the coal-fired plants with natural gas alone.
But, that isn't all. It now turns out that photo cells are becoming competitive with other forms of power production. A report by Barclays investment bank shows that photocells are already cost-competitive in Hawaii, and will be competitive in California by 2017 and New York and Arizona by 2018. By 2024, they say photocells will be cheaper than grid power in all but a handful of states.
Specifically, the report is looking at the issue of cells and storage on private homes - people going off the grid. But, if photocells are becoming that competitive, how long will it be before the utilities realize they can make efficient, competitive power plants using photocells?
In other words, we will be making electricity and I don't see the cost sky rocketing. As for the jobs, there will likely be some job displacement, but losses will probably be minor if in fact, we don't see an increase in jobs due to new technologies. Coal miners might see their jobs suffer, but I'm betting it won't be as much as is claimed. Coal is something of a miracle power source, other than the fact that it is a terrible polluter. You just dig it out of the ground and use it. You don't have to process it and it even comes in an easy to transport form. If we are not burning coal here in this country, there are world markets where it will still be cost effective to ship our coal. China alone is planning on opening a new power plant every week between now and 2050.
So, the way I view the regulation is that its pretty close to being much ado about nothing. The cost to the economy is not going to be anything like the dire forecasts being made. At the same time, the benefits to the environment are not going to be anything like the optimistic forecasts being made.
However, we must do something about the emissions. If this will help, then we should do it. And, it gives us the moral high ground to put pressure on other countries to take action on their emissions.
But, there is one dark side to this that needs to be addressed. As much as I, as a scientist, want to see politics stay out of a scientific issue, we all know that is not realistic. Politics is the driving force behind much of the debate. I really don't believe the Republicans would deny global warming evidence so strongly if it was being proposed by a Republican. And, what Obama has done with his actions is to stir the pot and alienate Republicans even more. By his failure as President to work with the representatives of the People, including members of his own party, he is making future progress even harder to attain. By acting as an Imperial President, Obama is making it increasingly difficult to convince skeptics that this is a problem that needs to be addressed now.
In summary, I think the regulation is good one, even though it is over-hyped. But, I denounce the way it is being done.