EPA emissions rules and choices for Maine

The retired, coal-powered Salem Harbor Power Station in Salem, Massachusetts, shown in 2012. Washington Post photo by  Ricky Carioti.

The retired, coal-powered Salem Harbor Power Station in Salem, Massachusetts, shown in 2012. Washington Post photo by Ricky Carioti.

Opinions about climate change are suddenly all the rage again (literally) with Monday’s release of proposed new Environmental Protection Agency regulations aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants by 30 percent by 2030.

The New York Times put this story at the top of its coverage on Monday, although the story was only seventh on NBC’s morning news coverage. So perhaps it’s not surprising that many Americans still do not know whether the story is real or important enough to pay attention to.

Someday in a warmer and more troubled future, we may look back on media coverage of the great climate change debate that raged in America from the 1990s until it became a settled fact sometime before 2020 and understand that the message was clouded in its early years by the near universal use of the polar bear as a symbol of the earth’s changing climate. Although it is hard to have negative feelings about polar bears, their lives do not appear to most Americans as having any real connection with our lives, which is perhaps why it has taken so long for most of us to focus on this defining issue of our times.

Nevertheless, according to the New York Times’ pollster, Allison Kopicki, a significant majority of Americans believe that global warming is real.  Although the percentage of Americans who share that view has declined slightly since 2008, still 73 percent of Americans surveyed by different polling organizations using different questions have confirmed a relatively constant pattern of opinion.

But as with so many other major issues, the polling also reveals is a huge partisan divide — 65 percent of Democrats call climate change “a major threat,” while only 25 percent of Republicans agree. According to Kopicki, this finding is closely correlated to another significant finding — namely that Democrats trust scientists more than Republicans do.

But back to the story of the day. The new EPA guidelines will be issued under the authority granted the president under the Clean Air Act and does not require congressional approval. The new regulations give states wide latitude to pursue different strategies for reducing carbon dioxide from their electrical systems, including increases in solar and wind generation capacity, increases in energy efficiency or participation in “cap and trade” markets to use markets to buy and sell permits to pollute.

Across the United States, hundreds of coal-fired electrical plants produce about 40 percent of our electricity, although that number is already declining rapidly as utilities switch to cheaper natural gas. Here in New England, two large coal fired plants — one in Massachusetts and the other in Connecticut — have been targeted by environmental groups for over a decade in campaigns to prevent them from continuing to burn coal. One, in Salem, Massachusetts, will convert to natural gas generation; the other in Bridgeport, Connecticut, is in critical financial condition after its earnings “fell off a cliff” in 2009.

What the new EPA regulations will mean for Maine is a question that is unlikely to get answered until the November gubernatorial election.

Maine is part of RGGI, or the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a “cap and trade” marketplace of nine northeastern states, which has successfully reduced carbon emissions since it was first organized in 2008. Although both the Great Recession and the conversion to natural gas generation have both helped reduce carbon emissions from the participating states, nevertheless the auctions have generated tens of millions of dollars per year in revenue to the participating states. Maine has used its share of the revenue largely to fund energy efficiency initiatives.

If, as appears likely, the price of carbon dioxide permits sold at the RGGI auctions increases in the future, Maine will have to decide how to continue investing those dollars — whether through continued investments in energy efficiency programs or through investments in other renewable energy programs, or, alternatively, through extensions of natural gas pipelines; the outcome of the November election will surely be a deciding factor.

More and more of us are beginning to understand that our energy choices are the most consequential environmental issue of our times and it is up to us to inform ourselves of what decisions our leaders are making — or proposing to make — on our behalf.

Philip Conkling

About Philip Conkling

For the past 30 years, Philip Conkling served as the founding publisher and senior editor of Island Journal and The Working Waterfront at the Island Institute in Rockland.