The Obama administration earlier this month unveiled the nation’s first set of rules regulating carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Some of the loudest cheers for these rules, labeled the Clean Power Plan, should be coming from Maine.
Monday’s air quality alert from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection warning residents of unhealthy levels of ozone served as a case in point. According to the DEP, the high concentration of ground-level ozone was the result of “air emissions being transported from states located to our southwest.”
The warning was just the latest consequence of Maine’s location at the “tailpipe” of the nation, downwind of states that rely heavily on coal for electricity. Although Maine isn’t responsible for some of the nation’s dirtiest emissions from electricity generation, its residents bear much of the impact in the form of low air-quality days and one of the highest rates of asthma in the nation.
While coal-burning states enjoy a source of electricity that’s cheap on the front end, Maine residents pay the price on the back end, in the form of doctors’ bills, elevated insurance premiums and missed school and work days. Because the Clean Power Plan targets coal power most aggressively, Maine is among the states that stand to benefit the most.
The Clean Power Plan is a welcome step from a federal agency — its actions limited by an uncooperative Congress — to keep carbon emissions in check and start to combat climate change in a meaningful way. But despite dramatic assertions from political opponents that the Clean Power Plan is far-reaching and job-killing, it is clear the nation needs to take much more ambitious action to address climate change.
By 2030, under the EPA’s plan, CO2 emissions from the power sector, which is responsible for a third of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, would be 32 percent below their 2005 levels. When it comes to soot- and smog-creating sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides — common pollutants from burning coal — the Clean Power Plan targets are even more aggressive. By 2030, sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants would be 90 percent lower than they were in 2005; nitrogen oxides would be 72 percent lower. Coal is responsible for 77 percent of the electricity sector’s CO2 emissions but only 39 percent of power.
The EPA has set state-specific emissions targets under the plan, and it’s set one of the most stringent goals in the nation for Maine — to emit 779 pounds of carbon dioxide for every megawatt hour of electricity generated, a 10.8 percent drop from its 2012 emissions rate. By contrast, Kentucky, which today has the highest rate of CO2 emissions in the nation, would end up at 1,286 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour of electricity by 2030, a 40.6 percent drop.
The Clean Power Plan sets worthwhile targets. Fortunately, much of the nation already is on track to achieve them, the result of a market shift in recent years away from coal and toward natural gas and policy choices in several states to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy.
Without any federal intervention, 14 states are on track to surpass the Clean Power Plan’s 2020 targets, according to an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Maine and the eight other northeastern states that participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the regional carbon credit trading program, are among them.
Maine, for example, is on track to surpass its 2020 emissions reduction goal by 123 percent, mostly because of energy efficiency improvements and the remainder from the development of renewable energy.
Even Kentucky, one of 15 states suing to stop the Clean Power Plan, is expected to exceed its 2020 reduction goal by 13 percent, entirely attributable to power generators replacing coal-powered plants with plants that rely on natural gas. Nationwide, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, at least 295 coal-fired power plants either have shut down since 2012 or are scheduled to close by the end of 2020, representing one-tenth of the nation’s 2012 coal-fired generating capacity.
It’s heartening to know the nation already is on track to cut CO2 emissions. The federal government should do whatever it can to continue pushing states along and holding them to aggressive standards.