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Much Ado About Nothing



October 11, 2017 - There was predictable indignation but no surprise at the administration’s decision to withdraw the Clean Power Plan. No plan survives contact with the enemy, and this one certainly didn’t. But not just because the president and his voters opposed it. Because the CPP was, from the outset, more a political subterfuge to circumvent Congress than an effective policy for controlling emissions that were declining anyway.


All the huffing and puffing aside, the CPP’s authors are on record acknowledging its purely symbolic aspect. It wouldn’t have had any meaningful impact on global concentrations of greenhouse gases; it wasn’t intended to be a practical solution. “We had to show the world we’re serious” was the feeble claim made on its behalf. This rationale impressed environmental NGOs and elected officials who rely on wealthy green donors, The New York Times editorial board and millennials living at home. But few others took it seriously.


The CPP would demonstrate the United States commitment to greenhouse gas reductions by raising energy costs, increasing risks of power disruptions and destroying high-wage jobs throughout the country. The Energy Information Administration estimated the CPP would have cost the coal industry 240 million tons of annual output, enough to support some 27,000 mining jobs plus five times as many throughout the supply chain. EPA itself put the cost at $33 billion.


The living standards of these men and women would have fallen further just to show the administration’s support for a climate accord that is today honored by none of the signatories to it. In green leader Germany, emissions have been stuck at 2009 levels, while rising costs are prompting calls of “auf wiedersehen” to an ambitious plan that increased renewable energy five-fold since 2000.


All this prompts the question: was the CPP worth it? Why pay so much for a rule that bought so little? Why not demonstrate our national commitment continuous emissions reductions with large-scale investments in high efficiency, low emissions technologies – and achieve real progress? Progress not just for the U.S. but for the rest of the world, especially in the emerging economies where coal is projected to remain a significant if not leading source of energy for the foreseeable future?


In addition to being ineffective and costly, the CPP was built on legal sand. When EPA officials invited environmental lawyers to write much of the rule for them, they could have at least chosen NGOs who understood the law. Instead, the rule was effectively challenged by 28 states and the Supreme Court for usurping state authority and inventing novel interpretations of the Clean Air Act’s Sec. 111(d).


Coastal state AGs are now noisily warning Administrator Pruitt of legal action. They may be premature. Pruitt hasn’t walked away from regulating greenhouse gases, not yet anyway. He’s only walked away from an ineffective, unlawful approach for regulating them. Big difference.