Opinion: Clearing the Air on New Carbon Standards

Opinion: Clearing the Air on New Carbon Standards

The EPA‘s new proposal to safeguard the air we breathe and contain a primary driver of climate change by reducing carbon emissions from existing power plants is the lynchpin to reducing our carbon footprint. As co-chairs of the House Sustainable Energy and Environmental Coalition, we welcome action on carbon pollution and look forward to working with all stakeholders in a responsible manner to advance a 21st century energy economy for America.

Power plants are responsible for 40 percent of U.S. carbon pollution. Without addressing this source of pollution our efforts fade in significance. Similar safeguards already exist for other hazardous pollutants such as lead, arsenic, and mercury. And they have worked. Why shouldn’t the same apply for carbon? By targeting this source of pollution, we protect public health, the economy, and national security.

Unfortunately, there are those who would have us believe that these and other EPA safeguards threaten our shared national priorities. Just as they did when Congress, in a bipartisan fashion, adopted the Clean Air and Clean Water acts a generation ago, these critics offer the same hackneyed arguments they always make: they contend the public does not want these protections, they will kill jobs, bankrupt the economy, and cause electricity rates to double. This is the same crowd that waged deceitful campaigns warning of death panels, a government-run takeover of healthcare, and socialized medicine in the hopes of distracting us from the urgent need for the Affordable Care Act.

Such false and misleading claims were shameful then, and if repeated, will jeopardize the tremendous strides we’ve made in protecting public health. Unfortunately, some took to attacking the EPA’s latest proposal even before it was released. Last week, Speaker Boehner said the EPA is “hurting our economy” with such proposals, though he did note he was no expert on climate change and had not yet seen the proposed regulation. Let’s move beyond such rhetoric and look at the facts.

Take the first claim that carbon pollution restrictions will kill jobs and devastate the economy. Evidence tells us that we can have both a clean environment and a strong economy. In a recent op-ed, Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican, who is the former Governor of New Jersey and was EPA Administrator under President George W. Bush, highlighted that “…between 1970 and 2006, U.S. GDP grew by 195 percent, yet thanks to regulatory changes annual emissions of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and lead all decreased significantly.” In other words, economic growth and regulation can and do intertwine successfully.

Investing in new energy standards actually has helped fuel that economic growth. For example, since the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, every dollar spent on compliance standards has yielded $4-$8 in economic return on that investment. The fact is that these standards have been a catalyst for a new generation of clean energy, new investment in plants and equipment, and the creation of thousands of domestic jobs. Employment in the American solar industry, for example, grew ten times faster than the national employment average rate last year.

Another tired but predictable claim opponents will make is that electricity rates will increase. The Washington Post’s fact checker, who does not take a position on EPA rules, debunked this allegation noting that “this [claim] does not pass the laugh test.” The Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 also were assailed by similar attacks. So what happened to electricity rates? They decreased. Between 1990 and 2006, electricity rates fell by 47 percent in Arkansas, 64 percent in Illinois, 28 percent in Indiana, 35 percent in Michigan, 30 percent in North Carolina, 18 percent in Ohio, 36 percent in Pennsylvania, 40 percent in Utah, and 36 percent in Virginia. Even the power companies agree. The CEO of American Electric Power, one of our nation’s largest utilities, said that with enough time to prepare, the transition to a cleaner energy future can occur "without a major impact to customers or the economy."

Finally, these perennial alarmists will argue that the American public does not want the “boot of government regulation on their neck.” To the contrary, when it comes to basic health protections, the American public overwhelmingly has said it doesn’t want the threat of pollution on its neck. A 2012 American Lung Association report found that Americans support the Clean Air Act by a 2-to-1 margin. The same report found nearly 3 out of 4 respondents believe we shouldn’t have to choose between health and safety standards and promoting the economy. They understand that the opponents are presenting them with a false choice and that we can and must do both. And when it comes to setting limits on carbon pollution from power plants, a February 2014 poll found 7 out of 10 Americans support these safeguards. Seventy percent!

But you won’t hear the House majority reminding the public of these inconvenient truths. They prefer reckless rhetorical arguments and irresponsible inaction. Reducing carbon emissions poses a significant challenge, and we look forward to working with industry, the environmental community, and stakeholders at the local, state, and federal levels to address this challenge. But first we must be willing to move beyond these campaigns of fear and deception.

Thankfully, there are indications that industry and the public understand this. For example, use of solar power by American companies increased by 40 percent last year. Those businesses, and their customers, understand the value of investing in American ingenuity and innovation – a healthier environment, a sustainable source of domestic energy, creating new high-skilled jobs.

The Obama Administration has taken a bold step in proposing a 30 percent reduction from 2005 levels in carbon emissions from power plants. We support that effort and know that America’s health and economic wellbeing will benefit immeasurably.