A political door slams shut. A window of opportunity opens.
Gov. John Kasich and the Republican-controlled General Assembly are freezing Ohio’s successful mandates for power generated from renewable and advanced energy sources, as well as state standards for energy efficiency. We’re the first state to do so. That regrettable decision will raise consumers’ electric bills, cost the state jobs and private investment, and force us to breathe dirtier air.
It also enables the Statehouse crowd to please the Koch brothers, Ohio utilities, fossil-fuel producers, and big industrial energy users in an election year. But the respite that Columbus politicians will get from green-energy issues they would rather avoid is likely to be short-lived.
Tomorrow, President Obama’s administration will release its plan to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants by as much as 20 percent. The proposal will be the most important environmental initiative of Mr. Obama’s presidency, with major implications for climate change and domestic energy production.
The new rule to be developed by the Environmental Protection Agency will especially affect Ohio, which gets more than two-thirds of its electricity from coal, compared to a nationwide average of about 40 percent. Industrial power plants are the biggest generators of the greenhouse gases that scientists call the major cause of global warming. The EPA limits will be the first restrictions on carbon pollution from these plants.
Reports suggest the proposal will seek to use market mechanisms to encourage states to create programs that will effectively require industries to pay for the carbon pollution they create. States’ options to limit such pollution are expected to include so-called cap-and-trade plans — in effect, new taxes on carbon accompanied by pollution permits issued by state government that industries can buy and sell.
Republicans, Tea Party types, and business lobbies loathe cap-and-trade, even though the concept first emerged from the administration of GOP President George H.W. Bush. President Obama failed to get Congress to enact a nationwide plan in his first term.
The Kasich administration opposes cap-and-trade. But executives of utilities that do business in Ohio, including FirstEnergy and American Electric Power, say they favor it.
Substituting natural gas for coal in power production is another option that could benefit Ohio, given the state’s fracking boom. But gas-fired plants create their own carbon pollution.
Other options in the EPA plan include greater reliance on renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, and increased energy efficiency — the very measures that Ohio’s government has just put on hold.
So as lawmakers spend the next two years “studying” the energy standards they’ve frozen, they may find that promoting conservation and alternative energy to comply with the new carbon regulation, instead of weakening the state standards further, aren’t such bad ideas after all.
“There will be substantial benefits for Ohio if they rethink that decision,” says Daniel Lashof, chief operating officer of NextGen Climate America Inc., a group formed by billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer to combat climate change. As the EPA rule takes effect, he says, Ohio officials will have to submit a plan to cut carbon emissions.
“If they don’t do energy efficiency, they’ll still be required to meet the carbon reduction targets, but they’ll have to find a more expensive way to do it,” Mr. Lashof told me last week. “It would be much better if they didn’t put this pause into effect. It would be cheaper and easier if Ohio continued the path it has been on.”
A new study by the Natural Resources Defense Council of the likely impact of the carbon regulation shows what Ohio stands to lose by freezing its clean-energy mandates. Had the state’s energy-efficiency standard stayed in effect and worked in tandem with the EPA rule, the NRDC report estimates that by 2020 our state could create 8,600 more jobs. The typical consumer would save another $82 a year on his or her electric bill.
“Ohio has proved how valuable energy efficiency is,” says Sheryl Carter, codirector of NRDC’s energy program. “You’ve made tremendous gains over the last five years. Consumers have saved a billion dollars — they could have expected to save four billion more.”
Northwest Ohio has seen its share of solar fiascoes. The Blade has reported on local solar companies that pocketed big taxpayer subsidies without creating the jobs they promised, or much of anything else.
That’s an argument for monitoring such public investments much better. It isn’t an argument against promoting renewable energy.
Meanwhile, the case for curbing Ohio’s overreliance on coal remains compelling on environmental as well as economic grounds. The National Wildlife Federation notes that Ohio power plants and major industrial facilities spew as much carbon pollution each year as 31 million cars.
Cincinnati, Canton, Cleveland, Steubenville, and Dayton are among the 25 worst U.S. cities for year-round particle pollution, the American Lung Association says. Toledo escaped that distinction, but that’s cold comfort; the lung association gave Lucas County’s air a failing grade this year for ozone pollution.
In this century, Ohioans have endured dozens of heat records, precipitation records, disaster declarations related to severe storms and flooding, and a major wildfire. The Great Lakes’ winter ice cover has decreased by nearly two-thirds since the early 1970s — and this year’s brutal winter hasn’t reversed that trend. Climate change is promoting the spread of toxic algae and invasive species in Lake Erie.
Deny the evidence of your senses, and of science, all you want. Mother Nature is giving us fair warning.
The EPA will take two years to develop the final carbon rule, while it hears from states and utilities. States will get another year to show how they plan to comply. But even before it’s released, Mr. Obama’s proposal is attracting condemnation.
There’s renewed talk by Republican politicians of the President’s “war on coal.” Expect “cap and trade” to release “Benghazi” as Washington’s favorite line of attack. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce offers dire warnings of economic slowdowns, higher electric bills, and job losses because of the plan, especially in Ohio and other Midwest states.
“The big polluters say these sorts of things every time,” Mr. Lashof says. “And every time, they’ve been wrong.”
Similar arguments distorted the debate in Columbus — to the extent there was one — on freezing Ohio’s clean-energy standards. Ohioans, and everyone else, can only hope that Washington politicians will give the new carbon rule a better chance to succeed before they trash it.
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.