Critics of the Environmental Protection Agency’s new Clean Power Plan are describing it in apocalyptic terms. But much of what they believe about the plan — that it will destroy the coal industry, kill jobs and raise costs for consumers — is wrong. And it’s important to understand why.
The overblown political rhetoric about the plan tends to obscure the market reality that the coal industry has been in steady decline for a decade, partly as a result of the natural gas boom, but mostly because consumers are demanding cleaner air and action on climate change.
Communities across the U.S. have led the way in persuading utilities to close dirty old coal plants and transition to cleaner forms of energy. The Sierra Club’s grass-roots Beyond Coal campaign (which Bloomberg Philanthropies funds) has helped close or phase out more than 200 coal plants over the past five years.
The primary reason for the public revolt against coal is simple: It causes death, disease and debilitating respiratory problems. A decade ago, coal pollution was killing 13,000 people a year. Today, the number is down to 7,500, which means that more than 5,000 Americans are living longer, healthier lives each year thanks to cleaner power.
At the same time, jobs in the energy industry have multiplied, led by natural gas and renewable sources such as solar and wind. Today, there are nearly two people working in the solar industry for each person employed by the coal industry.
What has this meant for consumers’ pocketbooks? Very little. The transition away from coal has been almost undetectable in electricity bills: Residential rates have been essentially flat since 2006.
In short, reducing our nation’s coal consumption has meant a healthier country with more jobs — at no extra cost to consumers. Is there anyone who thinks that’s a bad deal?
The EPA’s Clean Power Plan merely continues this trend. Consider this: More than 50 percent of U.S. electric power came from coal in 2005. Today, it is down below 40 percent. The EPA’s new rules project a decline to 27 percent by 2030. In other words, we are already halfway to the EPA’s goal — seven years before its rules take full effect, and before many of the coal plant closings that are scheduled to happen over the next decade, thanks to the Sierra Club and others.
And if the latest phase of the Sierra Club’s campaign succeeds, coal power will fall far below 27 percent well before 2030 — even if the EPA rules are rescinded by the next president or struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
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