EPA’s Clean Power Plan Proposal: National Standards with State Flexibility

By Christine Todd Whitman
Brookings
November 3, 2014

In June, the Environmental Protection Agency released a draft rule to regulate carbon emissions from hundreds of power plants across the country, requiring that they cut carbon-dioxide emissions 30% from 2005 levels by 2030. The plan includes individual goals that the EPA is setting for each state based on the state’s progress in reducing emissions since 2005. The rule would give significant flexibility to states in their pursuit of their target reduction, whether through expanding renewable energy, creating new energy-efficiency programs or creating cap-and-trade programs. The EPA is taking comments on the proposed rule, along with a less aggressive option, before it is finalized in June of 2015.

While not perfect and subject to legal review, this rule does something unusual – it has the potential to strike the important balance between a national standard for reduced emissions and state flexibility to achieve that end. As a Republican in the original sense of the word, and a champion of local government, I think giving states the flexibility to achieve their target through a variety of means is a positive step.

I am also hopeful that this will meet industry leaders’ need for a national regulatory system within which they can plan and act. Unfortunately and inaccurately, the climate debate often portrays the tension between economic growth and environmental protection as a zero sum game. Let’s not forget that in January of 2007, CEOs from signature American companies such as DuPont, Caterpillar and General Electric, as well as utilities such as Pacific Gas and Electric, joined environmental leaders at a press conference just before President Bush’s State of the Union address to ask the President and Congress to regulate them. Industry leaders recognize that operating in 50 different environments is unhelpful to their functioning – companies need a basic understanding of what’s going to be required of them in order to make major capital decisions for the future.

Taking steps to reduce CO₂emissions is not simply about protecting the environment – the studies that link environmental contamination and various health impacts are mounting. If the more ambitious plan that the agency prefers is put in place, the EPA estimates that the public health benefits would be between $55 billion and $93 billion in 2030, compared to $8.8 billion that the agency estimates utilities would spend to comply. More importantly, the EPA estimates 2,700 to 6,600 premature deaths and 140,000 to 150,000 asthma attacks in children would be prevented by 2030. It is clear that we cannot neglect the climate; the price we pay is much greater than we can afford in terms of both dollars and human lives.

I am hopeful that policymakers at both the state and federal levels will put pandering to the electorate aside and pursue a reasoned conversation on this proposed rule. While the EPA has many critics, this is a proposal that deserves the nation’s attention and action.