Monday, September 30, 2013

Putting Coal Ahead of Our Future

As Prof. Robin Kundis Craig noted last week in a lecture at the UM Law School, the preamble to the 1972 Montana constitution is really pretty splendid:

We the people of Montana grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains, and desiring to improve the quality of life, equality of opportunity and to secure the blessings of liberty for this and future generations do ordain and establish this constitution.

Craig wasn't just praising the eloquence of constitution's authors (although they certainly were eloquent), she was making the point that environmental resources - rivers, forests, fisheries, the atmosphere - are held in trust for the public and that trust carries with it the authority and responsibility for their protection. That's a point that sometimes gets lost sight of. Take, for example, a recent letter to the Helena Independent Record by Sen. John Brenden.

Brenden, who is chairman of the Legislative Environmental Quality Council, thinks that Governor Bullock and Department of Environmental Quality Director Tracy Stone-Manning should oppose the recently announced EPA carbon emission standards for new power plants. The problem, he says, is that the standards will “prevent new plants from being built anywhere in the country,” and that, in turn, will “kill future demand for Montana coal.” One might hope that Sen. Brenden would know better, but alas, he is wrong on two critical counts.

First, it’s not clear where Sen. Brenden, if he ever read the Montana constitution, could have gotten the bizarre notion that it's the job of the Department of Environmental Quality to prop up the coal industry. Just to be sure: it’s not.  The department is charged with protecting and sustaining a clean and healthful environment for the benefit of this and future generations (check out the DEQ mission statement here). By now it should be clear that protecting Montana’s environment – and when it comes to that, its economy as well - requires arresting climate change, and it's equally clear that we can’t do that alone. We must join in the national effort to reduce carbon emissions, and not subvert that effort in the interest of selling other states more coal. In order to oppose these regulations, the  Governor or Director Stone-Manning would have to neglect their public trust duty to protect the environment that Montanans treasure.  And neglecting that duty is something they should never do, even if Brenden thinks otherwise.

Second. even if  Bullock or Stone-Manning could somehow make the EPA standards go away, no new coal fired power plants would get built, because nobody intends to build them anyway.  And the culprit - if there is one  - is not the EPA; it’s cheap natural gas. As Brad Plumer reported recently in the Washington Post, for new coal plants to be competitive with natural gas plants, natural gas prices have to get above $7 per million BTU. But the US Energy Information Administration projects that the price will stay under $6 for the next two decades; as a result, the agency does not see any new coal powered plants being built between 2018 and 2035. If coal faces a grim future, it’s the fault of the heedless free market we're all so fond of til it gores our ox, not Washington policy makers.

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