Fuzzy math clouds carbon emission numbers


President Obama’s announcement earlier this month of new regulations requiring reductions in carbon emissions from the nation’s coal-fired power plants brought the predictable howls of doom from industry representatives, conservatives and lawmakers from coal-producing states. "The president’s plan would indeed cause a surge in electricity bills — costs stand to go up $17 billion every year,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in a prepared statement. “But it would also shut down plants and potentially put an average of 224,000 more people out of work every year."

Yet, despite the pushback from conservatives and assertions that the proposed regulations are part of a concerted “War on Coal,” the new regulatory plan has also bred skepticism among several national environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity and 350.org, who say the whole notion that we’ll be reducing our emissions by 30 percent by 2030 is based largely on a statistical sleight of hand.

Journalist Mark Hertsgaard, writing in Harper’s magazine, says the Obama Administration has largely relied on “accounting tricks” in its new rules to avoid making meaningful reductions. It has done so by using 2005 as a baseline for calculating carbon reductions rather than 1990, the year used by nations adhering to reductions targets under the Kyoto Protocol. According to the Energy Information Administration, U.S. coal plants emitted 1.8 billion metric tons of carbon into atmosphere in 1990; by 2005 that number had grown to almost 2.2 billion. So, while a 30 percent reduction from the higher 2005 figure seems larger nominally, it is less meaningful for reducing overall carbon concentration in the atmosphere. In other words, the proposed2030 targets turn into a 7.7 percent reduction when using the 1990 levels as a baseline.

Not only are the reductions significantly smaller, Hertsgaard explains, but also out of step with the more stringent targets outlined under Kyoto. The U.N.'s climate scientists say those targets are necessary to keep global temperatures from increasing more than two-degrees Celsius from the pre-industrial average, after which severe and irreversible climate disruptions are inevitable.

The proposed regulations, known as the Clean Power Plan, are the latest in a series by the Obama Administration seeking to reduce carbon emissions from the nation’s industrial facilities, primarily from its electricity sector, which generates an estimated 32 percent of all carbon emissions nationwide. Coal-burning plants produce less than half of the nation’s electricity but are responsible for three quarters of the emissions.

In spite of the controversial nature of the new regulations, the trend away from coal is already well underway. While demand for coal continues to grow globally, here in the U.S. the trajectory has been markedly downward. In 2002, coal-fired plants produced more than 50 percent of the U.S.’s electricity; by 2012, that figure had fallen to just over 37 percent. A recent Deutsche Bank report projects that coal-fired generation will continue to fall in its share of U.S. energy generation capacity, to 17 percent by 2030.

According to the watchdog media group Source Watch, more than 20 facilities in eight western states – collectively representing nearly 4,000 megawatts of generation capacity – have been retired or are slated for retirement or conversion to cleaner burning natural gas by 2025. In December, Arizona Public Service, operator of the Four Corners Generating Station, shut down three of the plant’s five units, reducing its generating capacity from 2,100 to 1,540 megawatts and its carbon emissions by 30 percent.

Meanwhile, conservatives are mounting a resistance to the new carbon rules. Idaho representative and chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee for Energy and Water Development, Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, told Bloomberg of plans to introduce legislation that would deny funding to the program. Last week, Montana Republican representative Steve Daines introduced a bill that would block the regulations until the government certifies that the rules won’t cost jobs, raise electricity rates or result in any loss in gross domestic product.

While conservatives strike the familiar poses, at least one prominent environmentalist has offered grudging credit for the administration’s movement on climate change, however late the move is. “I think it’s properly ambitious – for the first term of the Bill Clinton administration,” Bill McKibben, author and 350.org co-founder, told the New York Times. “Given the melting Antarctic, we obviously should be doing far, far more, but at least we’re finally started.”

Jeremy Miller is a contributing editor of High Country News. He tweets @JeremyJ_Miller.