Actually, That's Not Right

Calling the (many) bluffs of the Clean Power Plan’s coal-loving, credulity-straining opponents.

June 26, 2015

Photo: __andrew/Flickr

It’s time to play Actually, That’s Not Right, the talking-points rebuttal game where you sift through the spin, dismantling the bad-faith arguments of politicians, corporations, and anti-environmentalists using nothing more than logic, science, and your secret weapon: facts!

Today’s episode is all about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), the proposed carbon-reduction standards for existing power plants that President Obama unveiled last year, which are being revised and refined at this very moment. Your opponent is the freaked-out coal industry, whose already imperiled dominance as America’s chief source of energy is being threatened even further by these new regulations.

Ready to rebut? Let’s play!

Talking Point 1: The Clean Power Plan is an executive-branch takings scheme masquerading as environmental policy. It violates the separation of powers doctrine! It’s unconstitutional!

Actually, that’s not right. The most visible champion of this misguided line of attack is none other than Laurence H. Tribe, the Harvard Law School professor and liberal legal icon who once worked as a consultant to the 2008 reelection campaign of President Obama, his former student. By openly attacking the constitutionality of the CPP, Tribe has quickly become the improbable BFF of coal-loving Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell—who clearly relishes the image of the president being “schooled” in public by his onetime mentor on matters of constitutional and administrative law.

In issuing his recent broadsides against the CPP, however, it’s important to note that Tribe has been acting not as a dispassionate legal scholar but rather as an advocate—i.e., as paid legal counsel, retained by a client to zealously represent his or her interests. And in this case, the client just happens to be Peabody Energy, the world’s largest privately owned coal company. So far, Tribe and Peabody’s assault on the CPP has combined sound bite–friendly hyperbole with legal arguments that have already been witheringly, and repeatedly, rejected by other experts—including two of Tribe’s high-profile colleagues at Harvard Law School. As David Doniger, the director of NRDC’s Climate and Clean Air program (disclosure), puts it: “Peabody has every right to employ Professor Tribe to put a shine on the company’s claims. But their claims aren’t very strong, with or without his patina.”

There are legal points to be argued with regard to the highly technical issues underlying the structure and implementation of the CPP, and those points will continue to be argued vigorously. But Peabody knows that in the current political landscape you’re more likely to get traction with the media by framing a conflict like this one inaccurately—as an epic battle over a big constitutional principle like takings or separation of powers—than by presenting it for what it really is: a disagreement over how to resolve a discrepancy in the language of Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act as it appears in two slightly different versions, both of which are considered “official.” When you’re paying for Laurence Tribe, you’re looking for more than the careful parsing of one tiny snippet of statutory law; you want to see some constitutional fireworks. Sometimes, though, they’re just not there.

Talking Point 2: OK, maybe the CPP isn’t unconstitutional. But it is reckless! If the CPP goes through, the abrupt disappearance of so much coal-derived electricity all at once will weaken the grid and cause blackouts!

Actually, that’s not right. This bit of alarmist spin can probably be traced to a dire-sounding warning issued recently by American Electric Power, one of the largest investor-owned electric utilities in the United States. Should the CPP be put in place without major modifications, its spokespeople warned, the lights could go out for customers across the nation.

But here’s the thing: Utility companies are always saying the lights are going to go out whenever the EPA undertakes any kind of ambitious plan to curb pollution from the energy sector. And they’re always wrong. If their fears had any merit, we would have been subject to massive blackouts all over the country this past April 15, the deadline for power plants to comply with new EPA standards regarding mercury and other air toxics. Utilities had complained bitterly about these rules, too, back in 2011—and made sure to pair their complaints with plenty of warnings about the rolling blackouts to come in the spring of 2015.

In report after report after report, though, energy analysts who aren’t funded by the coal industry have made it clear that energy from other sources—including renewables—will be more than able to fill whatever gaps might be created by a decrease in coal-derived energy. We’re gonna be fine.

Talking Point 3: OK, so maybe there won’t be blackouts either. But still, prices will go up! Coal is cheap. Replacing it with other sources of energy—especially renewables—will result in higher production costs and higher electricity bills for consumers!

Actually, that’s not right. As journalist Michael Grunwald (among many others) noted in a recent piece for Politico about the current state of the coal industry, “Coal used to be the cheapest form of electricity by far, but it’s gotten pricier as it’s been forced to clean up more of its mess, while the costs of gas, wind, and solar have plunged in recent years.” Grunwald recounts watching stakeholders in Oklahoma—I repeat, Oklahoma—rally around a plan that would have their local utility ramp up its investment in wind power rather than pursue new coal upgrades. Their impetus, he suggests, transcended any blunt cultural or political divides over environmental policy. “In Oklahoma, coal imported from Wyoming now costs more per kilowatt hour than the abundant gas under the ground or the wind that famously comes sweeping down the plain,” Grunwald wrote. “Cheap electricity has a way of scrambling political alliances.”

And guess what else? As the cost of coal continues to rise, the cost of renewables keeps going down—it’s now even lower than natural gas in some markets. The truth is, the energy efficiencies built into the CPP will end up lowering electric bills. In coal-rich Kentucky and West Virginia, to cite just two (deliciously ironic) examples, it’s estimated that households in 2030 will pay 7.7 percent and 9.9 percent less, respectively, for their electricity than they do today.

Talking Point 4: There! You just implicitly acknowledged it. All these regulations on coal are designed to make it impossible for coal producers to stay in business. The CPP is the coup de grâce that will finally kill off an industry that employs tens of thousands and sustains entire state economies!

Actually, that’s not right. As the EPA’s Clean Power Plan Benefits fact sheet explains, coal “will continue to have an important role in a diverse U.S. energy mix for years to come.” In fact, the agency predicts that coal will still account for more than 30 percent of our nation's electricity production in 2030. It’s a testament to just how ridiculously filthy coal is that cutting its use by just seven or eight percentage points can still add up to a sizeable reduction in emissions: hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide and hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic-particle pollution.

The CPP isn’t about making an entire industry disappear overnight; it’s about targeting the dirtiest fossil fuel in our energy portfolio and curtailing its oversized contribution to toxic air pollution and global climate change. And yes, it will also prompt local governments, industry, and tech leaders to pursue investments in an array of clean, renewable fuels that will comprise the energy portfolio of the future.

Actually, that’s not right. Make that the near future.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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