Four years ago politicians, notably Barack Obama and John McCain, were talking about climate change and the imperative to do something about it. But that's all over now. Congress, after a few failed attempts at legislation, is no longer interested. The President, in repeated speeches devoted to energy, barely mentions it. The recession and jobs, health care reform, Tea Party lunacy and good old fashioned denial seem to have driven climate change not just off the front burner, but off the back of the stove.
Maybe that's why when the EPA this week proposed new standards to regulate carbon emissions from electrical generating plants, the reaction was, at best, muted. On the other hand, maybe it's because the regulations, at least at this point, really won't have much of an impact on either the economy or the climate.
The EPA is proposing a standard which would apply only to new gas or coal fired power plants, and would cap their carbon dioxide emissions at 1000 pounds per megawatt-hour of electricity produced (you can read the 257 page proposal here) . That's a standard that efficient modern natural gas generating plants can meet, but coal fired plants, which emit almost double that amount, cannot. It may be that some day the industry will figure out how to capture and store carbon dioxide from coal fired plants securely and at reasonable cost, but that day doesn't appear to be coming any time soon. So for the foreseeable future, the EPA standard means that new generating units will burn gas, and not coal. Well, that's something, isn't it? (Sort of) clean gas instead of dirty coal?
Well maybe, but the fact is that gas was becoming the fuel of choice long before the EPA proposed the new standard. Gas is currently abundant and cheap, the cost of building gas fired plants is relatively low and coal simply can't compete. Indeed, according to EPA, no new conventional coal fired plants are being proposed anywhere in the United States. So the EPA standard simply locks in what would have happened anyway. Coal and gas production, energy jobs and prices, emissions - all those things - will do pretty much what they would have done anyway.
And speaking of emissions, what does all this have to do with climate change? Producing more electricity with fossil fuels means increasing carbon emissions. That fact in inescapable. Using gas rather than coal means that emissions will grow more slowly that they otherwise would, but they will still grow. The hitch is that to halt climate change, emissions need to fall - not just to grow more slowly, but to fall. We can use natural gas to make that happen only if new gas fired plants displace existing coal plants. Indeed, a rough calculation is that just to hold emissions at their current level, for every one megawatt increase in generating capacity we need, we'd have to build two new megawatts of capacity that are gas fired and retire one that's coal fired.
For the moment, however, nobody is talking about wholesale retirement of working coal fired power plants. These plants, which produce about 40% of all US carbon emissions, are not covered under the EPA proposal. Taking on existing coal fired plants is the next big step for EPA, but not one it seems inclined to take anytime soon. Right after she announced the new standard last week, EPA chief Lisa Jackson assured the press that "We have no plans to address existing plants and in the future, if we were to propose a standard, it would be informed by an extensive public process with all the stakeholders involved.”
And that, when it comes to climate change, sounds like business as usual.