As young lawyers, working out of the dusty attic in an aging townhouse, a few of us were given a simple but monumental task: figure out how to make a new law—the Clean Air Act—work.
The struggle for clean air we engaged in five decades ago is, sadly, relevant once again as the Environmental Protection Agency moves to create the first carbon standards for power plants.
In 1971 the EPA was less than a year old, and Congress had given it just a few months to set limits to pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide, that harm our lungs and can cause asthma. The EPA moved quickly, issuing rules that year mandating that new coal-fired power plants either install scrubbers or burn low-sulfur coal.
Scrubbers act like chemical cleaners of smokestack exhaust. While ubiquitous now, only a few were then in operation. Still, the EPA determined the equipment would perform well once the standards were in place. What happened next would not surprise anyone who has followed the Clean Air Act for the past five decades: the electric companies howled.
In a full-page New York Times advertisement, American Electric Power claimed that scrubbers have been “time and time again proven too unreliable, too impractical for electric utility use.” It concluded: “If the system doesn’t clog and shut down, it creates massive amounts of sludge.”
Under pressure from coal-heavy utilities and their congressional allies, the EPA undertook nationwide listening sessions where the agency’s new bureaucrats were bombarded with criticism: the new rules relied on unproven technology; the compliance deadline was too tight; jobs would be lost; the electricity grid would falter; prices would skyrocket, and the American economy would suffer a monumental toll.
I watched all this blowback with alarm, wondering if the EPA and Congress would back down. In the end, the utilities and coal companies managed to secure a few short delays and technical tweaks, but the EPA—with support and legal pressure from the Natural Resources Defense Council (where I still work today)—stuck by its crucial pollution control requirements for those new plants.
When the companies’ lawyers failed to block the rules, the companies’ engineers took over. And they delivered.
Sulfur dioxide pollution has fallen by more than 90 percent in the U.S., thanks to EPA rules—one of the great environmental protection achievements in the history of the U.S. The EPA found that without the clean air standards put in place after 1970, 205,000 more Americans would have died prematurely over the subsequent two decades, and millions more would have suffered illnesses ranging from asthma to high blood pressure. The economic benefits in just those two decades are stunning, with estimates ranging from $6 trillion to $50 trillion.
Over the past five decades, however, the electricity industry has kept crying wolf whenever the EPA proposes new pollution limits.
Whether it was the acid rain programs in the 1990s or the EPA rules to cut mercury and other toxic air pollutants in 2012, the industry’s playbook remains the same: Sure, we want to protect public health and the environment, they will say, but your rules—now the power plant carbon standards— are too much, too fast, too expensive. We won’t be able to keep delivering reliable electricity.
And, just as with sulfur dioxide, once the rules are in place and the company engineers get to work, deadlines are met, pollution is cut—and the American economy keeps humming along. In fact, in nearly every case the power sector has cut pollution faster and for less money than the EPA forecast.
And so, here we are today.
In May, the EPA proposed critical standards to cut carbon pollution from power plants. Long overdue, they come 14 years after EPA determined that carbon dioxide endangers our health and well-being by driving destructive climate change. The standards, which would phase in requirements on coal and gas plants over a decade or more, are an important piece of the puzzle to address the climate crisis.
Given market trends toward cheaper wind and solar energy and the billions of dollars of clean energy incentives in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act, the electricity sector is changing. Clean energy is on the rise. These rules will ensure those economic and carbon reduction benefits are fully delivered.
Many utilities have publicly committed to cut their carbon emissions, some laying out plans to get to net zero by 2050, and mostly there by the mid-2030s. But now that the EPA is actually setting rules to make sure they follow that path, the familiar arguments are back: This is too much and too fast. The EPA rules will endanger grid reliability. And the costs—oh my!
Nonsense. Fifty years of experience tell us that when companies stop relying on their lawyers, their engineers and grid experts know how to keep the lights on. And the EPA’s proposed rules allow for exceptions, extensions and waivers if real reliability problems should crop up, so that power companies can keep their plants operating when needed.
And, in fact, we’ve been here before.
Back in 2015, the Obama administration adopted the first carbon pollution standards for power plants with rules aimed at delivering a 32-percent reduction in power plant emissions by 2030. Big industry dusted off the old playbook. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce argued: “It will drive up electricity costs for businesses, consumers and families, [and] impose tens of billions in annual compliance costs.” The North American Electric Reliability Corporation, NERC, a nonprofit that oversees the system, said the “proposed timeline does not provide enough time to develop sufficient resources to ensure continued reliable operation of the electric grid.” And coal industry interests went to court to block the rule. In a rare move, the Supreme Court stepped in to stay the EPA standards.
The Clean Power Plan never went into effect.
But then something remarkable happened: While the rules were on hold, the U.S. hit the Clean Power Plan targets of a 32-percent reduction in carbon emissions—11 years early! Again, even with no rules in place, the power sector achieved what industry claimed would lead to steep costs and reliability problems.
Cheaper, cleaner options have replaced many old fossil-fuel plants. With the historic support from tax incentives passed by Congress, new technologies are coming online quickly. And the grid continues to deliver cleaner, affordable, reliable electricity. But, given the climate crisis, we need new standards now to cut carbon pollution faster.
It’s time for industry to throw away its old playbook and put its engineers to work.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.