Environmentalists: Obama Administration Carbon Regulations Don't Go Far Enough

Posted June 11, 2014

MP3 Interview with Mitch Jones, common resources director with Food & Water Watch, conducted by Scott Harris. Transcript compiled by Evan Bieder.


On June 2, the Obama administration announced new Environmental Protection Agency standards to regulate power plant carbon emissions. The rules, which are being proposed to fight climate change, were designed to reduce carbon pollution from the nation’s power plant 30 percent from 2005 levels by the year 2030. The new regulations target greenhouse gas emissions produced by the nation’s 600 coal-fired power plants, the largest source of carbon dioxide in the U.S.

According to scientific observers, the new regulation would enable the U.S. to reach its goal – set during the 2009 UN Conference Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen – to reduce the nation’s carbon emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by the year 2020, and 83 percent by the year 2050.

The coal industry and their conservative allies in Congress hope to derail the new EPA rules through legislative and legal challenges. These opponents claim the new carbon regulations will raise electric rates, damage the economy and export jobs to China. But while environmental groups have welcomed the new rules, many complain that the president did not go far enough, given the scale of the planet’s climate emergency. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Mitch Jones, Common Resources director with Food & Water Watch, who explains why many environmental activist groups are critical of the new regulations for not being as aggressive as they need to be.

MITCH JONES: We are glad that the president decided to return his focus to climate change. You know, it’s kind of been missing in the national debate for the past five years or so and was missing from the presidential campaign two years ago, so we’re happy that the president has proposed a rule and brought the issue back to the fore, but we are disappointed, and a lot of our friends and allies are disappointed that the rule isn’t as far-reaching as we had hoped. It’s not as ambitious as we had hoped. It’s not taking the lead in a way that we had really hoped. And, Food and Water Watch and another organization called the Institute for Policy Studies issued a joint statement a week ago when the rule was released highlighting a variety of our concerns with the rule beginning with that target with 30 percent from 2005 by 2030. We don’t believe, and I believe a lot of other organizations agree with us, that’s not a target that is really ambitious enough to get the sort of change that we need in order to really combat climate change.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Your organization has said that a switch from coal fire-powered plants to electric power plants that are fueled by natural gas really is not the answer, and that seems to be the direction the administration and a lot of utilities are going to, mostly based on price these days, but maybe you could speak about how natural gas really is not a good switch over when it comes to climate change.

MITCH JONES: Sure, so, when the rule was originally released, everybody was saying this is going to be a real boon for wind and solar because what we’re going to replace coal with is wind and solar, but, as you indicated, when you look at price, when you look at market forces that are going to be at play here because this is a market-driven rule, gas is going to be the real beneficiary of the rule and the reason why we think that’s bad is because if you compare burning gas to burning coal, hands down, gas is cleaner when you’re actually burning it. It’s much cleaner, you know, but if you consider the whole life-cycle from when it’s extracted to when it’s burned, that advantage to coal over gas basically disappears, and the evidence for this is becoming stronger as we go on. So, for instance, new calculations being done by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is the big, international group that has been issuing reports now for decades about climate change, demonstrating that there is a scientific consensus about human-caused climate change, that there is a real need to do something drastic if we’re going to avoid a climate change that we as human beings just can’t survive. They now claim that on a 20-year timeframe, a pound of methane will trap about 86 times as much heat as a pound of carbon. So, you know, that’s a new number, that’s been revised up so that in a 20-year timeframe, methane is 86 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon. Now, I should point out that when writing this rule, the EPA didn’t use the 20-year timeframe, they used the 100-year timeframe in which methane isn’t quite as bad, it’s only 34 times as potent as coal, but that’s another point in which we have a problem. We don’t think they should have used the 100-year timeframe. You know, quite frankly, we don’t have 100 years to get this problem fixed. So, we need to focus on that shorter timeframe, that 20-year timeframe. Those are the reasons why we think that switching to natural gas is not going to get you the real savings on greenhouse gasses on climate change that the rule is assuming will be there.

BETWEEN THE LINES: In our debate here in the United States, there are people on the right who don’t believe in climate change anyway. Many climate change deniers are opposed to these regulations and many people who even give some credence to those scientific studies talking about climate change are crucial of this plan thinking that it’s government overreach, that it will trigger higher electric rates, and hurt the U.S. economy overall. Maybe you could speak directly to these critiques of hurting the economy.

MITCH JONES: The Chamber of Commerce did its own study about this and they released it right before the rule was released and what it really found was a small, I believe it was 0.2 percent, effect on GDP. Even by their own study that they were putting out as part of their scare-mongering techniques about the economic effects of the rule, what they found was a very small effect. I mean, I don’t want to say that there isn’t going to be an economic effect by reducing carbon and fighting climate change. There will be, but it’s not going to be the devastating, job-killer that, you know, the oil and gas industry and the Koch brothers want us to believe that it would actually be. And, if the government were to really couple a robust rule, something much stronger than the rule that’s being proposed with a renewed commitment to investing in wind and solar, we have a real opportunity to build a new, stronger economy built upon not only providing renewable and sustainable energy, but using renewable and sustainable energy. And so, if we invest wisely, if we put the investments in the right places, and if we focus on the right things, we can really mitigate a lot of that economic effect but what we can’t do is wait any longer to fight climate change. We just … we’re running out of time. We have to do something now and we have to do something much bolder than what this rule suggests.

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