Dirt in the air
August 31, 2015
On August 3, the Obama administration, released the final version of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Clean Power Plan, which aims to lower emissions from the nation's power plants by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Under the proposal, each state will be required to submit a plan to the EPA detailing how it intends to meet the target benchmarks set by the agency.
The Clean Power Plan was developed to address climate change, according to President Barack Obama; however, 15 states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Wyoming and West Virginia — have opposed the EPA's new rule and have jointly filed for an emergency stay with the U.S. Court of Appeals. The 15-state coalition is requesting the U.S. Court of Appeals to rule on the emergency stay by September 8.
In what West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is calling, "the most far-reaching energy regulation in the nation's history," the 15 states say the EPA has the legal authority to carry out the regulations found within the Clean Power Plan.
Meanwhile, another 15 states including New York, California, Illinois and Oregon, along with New York City and the District of Columbia, have expressed their support for the EPA rules.
“In theory, generating electricity from wind and solar sources is a neat solution, but I personally don’t believe we can generate what we need from these sources. In my opinion, relying on these sources for energy is going to drive the price of power up considerably because both of these natural energy resources are heavily subsidized to keep them competitive.” Larry Nelson, sheep and cattle rancher
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Closer to home, Wyoming Governor Matt Mead has spoken out against the Clean Power Plan saying, "We've already seen huge losses from coal companies. This is proof that regulations like the Clean Power Plan are not only bad for Wyoming, they are bad for the entire country. We love natural gas in Wyoming – it's a big revenue source, it provides a lot of jobs, but as a country, if the energy policy is to completely move away from coal and into natural gas and renewables, they need to recognize that coal, in terms of reliability, is a wonderful resource. There are hundreds of years of coal left, you can store coal easier than natural gas. You can close down all the coal in the country, but we don't even hit 50 percent of the world's coal use."
Governor Mead questioned the actual benefits of the Clean Power Plan, doubting the new ability of the new rulings to actually influence climate change.
"The question I still have not heard answered to satisfaction, is even if they get everything they want from the Clean Power Plan, what is the net benefit, the net gain to the environment, and what is the tremendous loss to the United States and Wyoming in terms of competitive advantage we have of reliable, low cost electricity, year in and year out?" asked Mead. "What is it going to do to our consumers, not only our manufacturers and businesses, but those living on fixed incomes?"
Larry Nelson, a sheep and cattle rancher from Harding County, South Dakota, agrees with Mead and believes the perceived benefits of the Clean Power Plan don't outweigh the economic repercussions.
"There's no doubt about it — this plan is going to raise electric rates," he said. "With this declining cattle market, any extra expenses are not going to be good for ranching communities. One of the things that has really helped lower input costs in both the livestock and crop businesses is the reduction of fuel costs; however, if we turn around and raise electric rates in the attempt to reduce emissions, it's going to hurt the agricultural industry."
Nelson said Obama's initiative to reduce the use of coal and start using natural energy sources like wind and solar is a good idea in theory, but the application doesn't always work.
"In theory, generating electricity from wind and solar sources is a neat solution, but I personally don't believe we can generate what we need from these sources," said Nelson. "In my opinion, relying on these sources for energy is going to drive the price of power up considerably because both of these natural energy resources are heavily subsidized to keep them competitive. Our coal plants have really cleaned up their acts in the last 10-15 years, so I think it's kind of foolish to regulate them further and make such a strong push for natural gas."
Nelson understands the environmental concerns some folks have, but he believes the new regulations aren't the best solution to achieving lower emissions.
"It's certainly a worthwhile goal to reduce emissions any way we can; however, a cost-benefit analysis needs to be completed to make sure we don't put folks out of business," said Nelson. "There has to be some common sense with these regulations. Given the somewhat sorry state of the economy in the U.S. right now, raising electrical rates doesn't seem to make much sense."
For retired rancher Nancy Sorenson of Arvada, Wyo., Governor Mead misses the mark in his opposition to the Clean Power Plan.
"I'm not surprised Governor Mead doesn't approve of the EPA's Clean Power Plan," said Sorenson. "Granted, coal has been good for Wyoming. I'm also a retired teacher, and we've always had the benefit of having enough money for our schools, thanks to the economic push of the coal industry. I want the coal industry to continue in Wyoming, but I also want companies to follow the rules and clean up after themselves."
Sorenson says she sees issues where coal companies aren't keeping up with reclamation after a mine loses its vitality.
"Fifteen years ago, we got involved in the Powder River Basin Resource Council because there was going to be coal bed methane wells developed on our ranch," she said. "We wanted to have a voice in this issue because, like so many ranchers, we didn't have the funds to fight the development or at the very least voice our concerns about the development. The Powder River Basin Resource Council only represents 700-800 ranching families, but it represents the little guy when these coal companies come into town."
Over the course of the last 15 years, Sorenson says there have been 40-50 coal bed methane wells on their ranch.
"Our concerns have been when a larger company develops the wells and 'takes the cream' off of the mine — or drills them until they are economically invalid," she said. "Then instead of stopping and cleaning up the project and moving on as agreements have asked them to do, they sell the company to a smaller operator who doesn't necessarily have the money or the means to clean up, plug up the wells and reclaim the land. It seems to some of us that this is a good strategy for not having to reclaim these huge holes in the ground. Whether that's the corporation's intent or not, that's the reality of what is happening with some of these coal mines that slow down."
"I don't want to see coal miners lose their jobs, and I doubt the Wyoming coal industry is going to lose its demand because of this ruling," she added. "We just want to see things done properly and for coal companies to be mindful of the people impacted — both positively and negatively — by the mining business."
Shannon Anderson, Powder River Basin Resource Council organizer, says the Council supports the EPA's Clean Power Plan.
"We do support the Obama administration's actions to address climate change," she said. "We believe there will be benefits for the clean energy sector in Wyoming — particularly renewable energy like solar, wind, etc. We believe this rule will benefit livestock producers, as well. We aren't sure what's going to happen with this rule in court, so the best thing we can do is start studying our options. This is a very complicated proposal and its complexity impacts more than Wyoming as we export two-thirds of the energy produced here to other states."
In regards to Governor Mead fighting the Clean Power Plan, Anderson says she is glad the governor is evaluating the new rules thoroughly but disagrees with his position on the issue.
"We disagree with the governor on the science and the need for this rule, but as an organization, we believe action must be taken to address some of these environmental issues, and that's what the proposal tries to do."
Under EPA's plan, states will have until September 2018 to develop a state compliance plan that will meet the pollution reduction goals, with plans to start no later than 2022. Wyoming hasn't offered a state compliance plan as of yet, but neighboring Montana has laid out several possible scenarios for the state to implement.
In order to reduce carbon pollution, each state's plan will include methods to decrease the pollution from existing coal power plants; increase the amount of power generated from natural gas; increase power generated from renewable sources; and increase energy efficiency at the point of use, such as in homes and businesses.
According to the Powder River Basin Resource Council, Wyoming has one of the lowest pollution reduction targets in the nation. Under the new standards, all state goals fall in a range between 771 pounds per megawatt-hour (states that have only natural gas plants) to 1,305 (states that only have coal/oil plants). Wyoming's 2030 goal is 1,299 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour. EPA estimates that the Clean Power Plan has public health and climate benefits worth an estimated $34 billion to $54 billion per year in 2030, far outweighing the costs of $8.4 billion.
"I know that Wyoming is capable of meeting the goal set by the EPA," said Powder River Basin Resource Council chair Gillian Malone, in a recent press release. "And reducing our carbon pollution to safe and sustainable levels is really the only way forward. The plan has built-in flexibility that accommodates states like Wyoming, including the option of partnering with other states, which should make adoption of the plan relatively easy. We hope our state government can be creative and come up with a plan rather than choosing to fight the EPA."