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Idaho, Coal Plants, and the Clean Power Plan

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is about to roll out one of the most sweeping and complex environmental programs ever – the Clean Power Plan, designed to sharply reduce climate-changing greenhouse gases spewed from the nation’s coal-fired power plants.

The plan will affect all states in one way or another, though some, like Idaho, less than many others because our coal-fired generation comes from out of state. But one thing is clear: Even before the Clean Power Plan emerges from the mountain of threatened court challenges, it will change the way we in Idaho and across the nation receive our electricity.

The Plan is an offshoot of the landmark 1970 Clean Air Act and its “Rule 111(d)” that will crack down for the first time on the last remaining major source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. It will be the most important single step the federal government can take to slow the steamrolling trend toward irreversible climate change and the impacts already under way.

The Snake River Alliance submitted detailed comments to the EPA on the draft Clean Power Plan last December. Ours were among the estimated 8 million comments received by EPA. Idaho also submitted comments that said it doesn’t believe EPA has the authority to act on greenhouse gas emissions. But the state is already considering its options and is certain to spend the next year preparing a compliance plan. If it doesn’t, Idaho can expect the federal government to write the compliance plan instead, something that may happen in other states that have vowed to ignore the EPA plan altogether.

Contrary to the arguments of many in the coal and utility industries that reducing coal plants’ life-threatening emissions is just too expensive and burdensome, the savings from such things as reduced early deaths and hospitalizations more than make up for the costs. Reducing and eventually reversing greenhouse gas emissions is a moral imperative; nothing less than the health of our planet hangs in the balance.

Moreover, as coal interests cry wolf over whether it’s even possible to replace so-called “cheap” coal power, the retirement pace of coal plants is accelerating and they are being replaced by everything from more energy efficiency to renewable energy such as wind and solar. And those renewable resources are far more reliable and predictable than King Coal would have you believe.

Not only that, the technologies to capture power plant CO2 emissions don’t exist and won’t any time soon. That can only mean one thing – the urgency of reducing greenhouse emissions must be addressed today, not in 20 or 30 years. Remember, too, that most of the other clean-air regulations in place or coming soon deal with other coal plant pollutants such as dangerous soot and particulates and extremely toxic mercury. But they do nothing to control climate-changing CO2 emissions addressed by this Clean Power Plan.

A June 2015 survey by Utah-based pollster Dan Jones & Associates showed 44 percent of Idahoans believe the climate is changing and that climate change is a “crisis.” The survey was commissioned by Zions Bank and the results were reported in Idaho Politics Weekly, its electronic political newsletter.

The survey also found 26 percent of respondents saying the climate is changing but that the change is “not very damaging,” while just 21 percent deny the climate is changing, and 9 percent said they don’t know. One-fifth of Republicans agree climate change is real and that it amounts to a crisis. Forty percent of Republicans say the climate is changing but that it is “not very damaging,” while 30 percent of Republicans deny the climate is changing. Among Democrats, 84 percent say the climate is changing and that it is a crisis, 21 percent agree it’s changing but not very damaging, and only 2 percent of Idaho Democrats surveyed deny the climate is changing. Among independents, 50 percent believe in climate change and that it is a crisis while 21 percent believe it is occurring but is not very damaging. The results underscore the persistent disconnect between Idahoans – 70 percent of whom say the climate is changing – and state policy makers and elected officials who refuse to either acknowledge climate change or to implement policies and actions to do anything about it. Jones polled 601 adults from May 20 to 28. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.96 percent.

Jim Bridger coal fired power plant, Sweetwater County, Rock Springs Wyoming and pond. It  comprises four units, totaling 2110 megawatts (MW) of capacity. Completed in 1974, these generators use coal from the Bridger Coal and Black Butte mines.

Idaho Power is a part owner of the Jim Bridger coal plant in Wyoming.

We won’t know exactly what the Clean Power Plan will mean for Idaho until we see the final plan, sometime in early August most likely. We do know that:

  • Idaho has no utility coal plants, but it relies on out of state coal plants for roughly 40 percent of our electricity statewide. Even though Idaho has no plants, we as utility customers are still on the hook for our share of those plants’ emissions.
  • Idahoans spend more than $6.5 billion a year on energy and most of that money goes to states where the energy is produced whether for electricity or transportation.
  • Reducing Idaho’s reliance on coal means bringing those exported energy dollars back home through investments, jobs, taxes and other economic benefits from untapped, homegrown Idaho energy.
  • Replacing coal consumption with clean energy is a win-win that makes economic sense. Idaho could become a net energy exporter rather than relying on uncertain future electricity supplies and prices. Everything that replaces dirty coal power will help Idahoans save on their electricity bills.
  • The Clean Power Plan will reduce pollution from the electric power sector by one-third of 2005 levels by 2030.
  • Curbing power plant emissions is the biggest thing we can do right now to begin to stabilize our climate and protect future generations. Those future generations will remember whether we acted to protect the climate or ignored the threat.

The Clean Power Plan will likely be based on four possible “building blocks” that give states options they can use to meet state-specific greenhouse emissions targets. Only two of those building blocks are really in play for Idaho, and those are adding more renewable energy and increasing energy efficiency. The other two building blocks – improving coal plant operating efficiencies or replacing some coal with somewhat cleaner natural gas – don’t apply because we don’t have coal plants.

Soon, the Alliance and others in Idaho will begin sifting through the complexities of the new Clean Power Plan. Even as we do, misinformation will be coming from a desperate, failing coal industry, from many utilities, and yes, from climate change deniers. So as we pore over the details and figure out how Idaho will meet its obligations, the Alliance will be relentless in demanding that our state elected officials, policy-makers, and utilities plan for Idaho’s energy future rather than defending its energy past.

One point we at the Alliance always bear in mind even in our fierce fight against coal plants. It’s our expectation that the Clean Power Plan will eventually extinguish archaic coal-fired power combustion. The Alliance has always been mindful of the inevitable impacts that will have on coal-reliant communities and economies, especially those where Idaho-serving coal plants are located in Wyoming, Nevada, and Montana. There’s no question coal has no role as a 21st century energy source, and the sooner it goes away the better. There’s also no question that coal workers have been a vital part of our nation for more than a century. We recognize that those workers, their families, and their communities need all the assistance the nation can provide as they face what can be a painful transition to a new economy. That means new employment opportunities, continuing education, and job training.

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