Gov. Scott Walker greeted the Obama administration's release Monday of the final version of the Clean Power Plan with this: "President Obama's plan should be called the Costly Power Plan because it will cost hardworking Americans jobs and raise their energy rates. It will be like a buzz saw on the nation's economy. I will stand up for American workers and stop the Costly Power Plan."
And almost immediately his attorney general, Brad Schimel, said Wisconsin would join other states in a lawsuit seeking to stop the rule's implementation.
That's a mistake. The president's plan seeks to cut carbon pollution from existing power plants by about a third by 2030. It's an ambitious plan — the equivalent of taking 166 million cars off America's roads, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And it's an appropriate — although just a partial — response to the threats posed by climate change: rising sea levels, higher temperatures and changing weather patterns, which in turn affect food production, human health and the economy.
The plan, which the Obama administration developed after two Supreme Court decisions stated the EPA had a legal obligation to regulate U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, has already encouraged other countries to move forward on climate. And according to the EPA, the benefits far outweigh the costs.
Not only will Obama's new rule help stem climate change, it will improve public health — especially among children and the elderly — by cutting pollutants that lead to soot and smog. The American Lung Association lauds the rule.
Dr. Claire Gervais, a family practice physician with UW Health, said: “The Clean Power Plan will protect thousands of lives lost to premature death by cutting dangerous soot and smog that makes people sick and keeps children with asthma out of school. For every dollar spent cutting carbon pollution, $7 will be saved through health benefits.”
Walker and his administration — which have opposed the Clean Power Plan throughout the long process of its development — are likely correct that the cost of energy from coal plants will rise. But that will spur the transition to lower-cost, cleaner alternatives — already a strong trend in Wisconsin and the utility industry as a whole.
And utility rates and consumers' bills are two different things. Under the plan, each state has a specific goal based on its mix of energy sources, and can choose how to go about achieving it. In addition to, or instead of, modifying existing coal plants, states can switch to more natural gas combined-cycle plants, develop more renewable energy, and/or increase the use of energy efficiency measures. Several studies have shown that using renewables and energy efficiency to meet the goals would actually produce lower electricity bills, including studies by the Georgia Institute of Technology, Synapse Energy Economics, and the Southern Environmental Law Center. Analysis by the EPA estimates the average family will save $85 on its energy bill in 2030.
A paper by the environmental group Clean Wisconsin concluded that Wisconsin is well positioned to cut carbon emissions and that investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency have significant economic advantages — including creating many jobs in those industries — over investing in making coal plants more efficient or shifting to natural gas. And an analysis by the World Resources Institute found Wisconsin could cut carbon pollution from existing plants by 43 percent by 2020.
The Clean Power Plan encourages states to work together on regionally based plans, such as creating programs in which companies can buy and sell emissions credits. That free market-based system holds promise for achieving reductions at the lowest possible cost. Smart states will look into the possibility.
Rather than fight the new rule, we urge the governor to embrace it and instruct the Public Service Commission and Department of Natural Resource to engage citizens in wide-ranging discussions of how to best meet Wisconsin's goal. If Wisconsin doesn't develop its own plan, we'll likely be required to implement a plan developed by the federal government. How much better it would be to have a custom-fit program designed at the state level.
The Clean Power Plan is undoubtedly imperfect, and some tweaking will likely be required. But the Obama administration is leading on climate, as it should. Wisconsin should join in as a willing partner in that effort.
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