Let It Die––A Response to the Proposed Repeal of the Clean Power Plan

About a year ago I wrote the following essay but it was never published anywhere. More or less the basic thesis is the same. I was inspired to post it after hearing Michael Bloomberg claim on Meet the Press with Chuck Todd that being on target for the Paris climate goals was due to local municipalities remaining committed to the goals even though the Trump administration had not (Transcript). Of course, local municipalities are to be applauded for continuing to implement climate action plans that move us into a low CO2 emissions world. And, of course, action by local municipalities will enable us to meet the goals. But the data continue to suggest that it’s an economically motivated transition from coal to natural gas that is the real cause of this phenomenon.

Here is the original essay with one of the graphs updated:

The Clean Power Plan (CPP) was an Obama era EPA policy published in October, 2015, to reduce CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning electrical power plants 32% relative to 2005 emissions by 2030. The plan required states to develop and implement emissions reduction plans. The CPP was a key plank in the US emission reduction goals presented at the 2015 Paris Climate Talks. The CPP came under immediate political fire and eventually enforcement was blocked by an action of the US Supreme Court. The Trump administration ordered a review the CPP which eventually led to its proposed repeal in October, 2017.

CO2 emissions in 2005 from the electric power sector were 2.4 billion tonnes. They will be around 1.7 billion tonnes by the end of 2017. This is a 29% reduction, already close to the 32% mandated for 2030. It appears that the goals of the CPP are being met without it ever having been implemented. Interestingly, in 2016 the transportation sector exceeded the electrical power sector as the sector responsible for the most emissions.


Two factors contribute. First, these reductions in CO2 emissions for the electrical power sector are due to the transition from coal to natural gas. See the accompanying chart “Fraction of Source for US Electricity.” In 2006 50% of electricity in the US came from coal-fired power plants, 20% from nuclear, 20% from natural gas-fired power plants, and the rest from renewable forms of energy. A dramatic shift occurred during the past decade where coal dropped to just under 30% and natural gas increased to nearly 35%. Nuclear remained at 20%. The total electricity demand remained constant throughout this period. The transition to natural gas produced a significant reduction in CO2 emissions. Natural gas produces less CO2 per unit energy than coal. For each kilojoule (kJ) of heat produced, natural gas produces 0.05 g CO2, whereas sub-bituminous coal produces 0.13 g CO2 and anthracite/bituminous coal produces 0.10 g CO2. Emissions are at least cut in half when natural gas replaces coal (assuming minimal leakage of gas in the transport system). Natural gas combined cycle systems are closer to 60% efficient whereas conventional coal plants are 40% efficient. A combined cycle natural gas turbine uses the heat from the initial combustion in the gas turbine to drive a second conventional steam turbine. Gas plants also burn cleaner.

The driving force for this transition, however, is not emissions reduction, but rather simple economic factors. Due to hydraulic fracturing, natural gas has become much more abundant and less expensive. Natural gas power plants are cheaper to build (~$1 billion/GW vs. ~$3 billion/GW for coal plants). Currently, there are only four coal-fired power plants being built in the US, and it appears that three of the four may not be completed. Even apart from the low price of natural gas, the cost of non-CO2 emissions controls (SOx, NOx, O3, Hg, and particulates), the uncertain regulatory climate, and the long-term investment makes a new coal plant a risky plan.

The second factor is the growth of renewable energy, especially windand solar PV. The accompanying chart shows that the fraction of coal plus natural gas has decreased by about 7%. A 7% increase in combined wind and solar offset this decrease. Nuclear and hydroelectric have not changed. Both wind and solar have seen a 10-fold increase in actual energy production in the past decade. Both are zero-emission sources. Energy production from wind and solar that replaces coal or natural gas will reduce CO2 emissions.

Where Do We Go from Here?

  • It seems that the doomsday predictions of those lamenting the repeal of the CPP are overstated. Let it die, and let the market continue to bring emissions down.
  • Let the market do what it will to conventional coal. As coal is replaced by natural gas and renewables, CO2 emissions will continue to drop. Funding for the re-training of coal industry workers should be made available.
  • The reaction of certain states and local municipalities to the CPP repeal and the planned withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement suggests that there is a commitment to these policies despite the Trump administration’s ambivalence. Perhaps the best solutions now are those that work with state and local regulators.

Communicating Climate Change with Mind and Heart

This past Friday (9-5-2014) I attended Katharine Hayhoe’s lecture entitled “Communicating Climate Change with Mind and Heart.” The sponsor of the event was The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. Here’s the YouTube video of the lecture. Anyone interested in an abbreviated version of Katharine’s talk can find her recent talk from the 2014 meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) or her keynote from the 2011 meeting of the ASA or her book A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions. Katharine is an evangelical Christian who is a climate scientist. Many evangelicals are global warming/climate change skeptics and Katharine seeks to communicate to that skeptical audience that global warming/climate change is real and that the evangelical faith of these skeptics ought to motivate them to see the urgency of the problem and to take action to protect God’s second greatest gift, our planet, and to be concerned about the effects of climate change and its impact on our neighbors (especially in the underdeveloped majority world) whom we are commanded to love.

It was a great talk and I would recommend listening to Katharine and paying heed. As the Q&A time winded down a question came to mind. Unfortunately, I was not able to ask it. I will ask here though and doing so will afford me the chance to develop the question more fully–by the time I’m done it probably won’t feel like a question. Perhaps I can get Katharine to respond with a comment.

Hi Katharine. Great talk and thanks for all you do in communicating the message that faith and science are not incompatible. And thanks for all the tips on how to communicate climate change issues to skeptics.  As you anticipated in the press release this was not a hard-sell crowd. It was Boulder, CO after all–one of the more environmentalist-friendly places in the universe and just down the road from NCAR, the mothership of climate research. You might expect some pushback from this crowd on faith issues. I commend you for your unflinching affirmation of your Christian faith (ever so subtly lifting up Jesus Christ as God’s greatest gift) and calling on Christian values as a basis for action on climate change.

But as you have noted in your talks this is a “tribal” issue and almost everyone in the audience was from the same tribe. You’ve noted how most of us can’t be expert on climate change (or any issue for that matter) and that we get our opinions from the people we trust. So that’s one big issue here. The conservative Christian evangelical (most likely on the right end of the political spectrum) doesn’t trust anyone from the other tribe (and they consider left-leaning evangelicals to be in the other tribe). A few years ago I led a discussion among Christian faculty members at Colorado State University on this very question. This was a thoughtful group of academics but not all were scientists and on the whole they were politically conservative. I asked them if they thought their ideas about environmentalism were determined by the Bible or by their politics, i.e. that if Al Gore thought it was true that it must not be. They all immediately confessed that it was the latter.

As you noted, politically right-leaning evangelicals are going to get their opinion on climate change from people they trust–Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Focus on the Family, Cornwall Alliance and not from Al Gore or Barack Obama or Greenpeace. Sadly, those in the politically right-leaning evangelical tribe who become convinced of the reality and perils of climate change are often thought to have abandoned the tribe. Richard Cizik is a case in point.  Often there is a cluster of positions (abortion, environment, homosexuality, public assistance, national security, etc.) that seem to go together. Politically left-leaning evangelicals are perceived to have more in common with political liberals than evangelicals. (The perception runs the other way as well, I’m sure.) I admit to being at the right end of the political spectrum (even though I’m not a global warming skeptic and am an evolutionary creationist).

One of my dreams is that we right-leaning evangelicals who are scientists and who are convinced of climate change can convince some of these opinion makers on the right to see that climate change is not a right/left issue. The reality is that the opinion makers get their opinion from the people they trust. Why can’t they trust you, for example? Why do they have to trust climate scientists who have contrary views on climate change? Wouldn’t it be amazing if Glenn Beck interviewed you and changed his mind on climate change? So, here’s my question. Don’t you think that convincing these opinion-makers that they are wrong could be a fruitful project. What if we could tell Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck that we more or less agree with them on everything except their opinions on climate change? Might we get a hearing?

But this raises a challenge. At  your talk you showed the slide about the Founding Fathers and the issues of taxes and big government. This, I think, is the more fundamental issue and the reason that conservatives tend to be climate change skeptics. The answers of the tribe on the left seem to involve expanding government and increasing government regulation.  In the Slate article about you you promote free market solutions to decarbonizing our energy. I didn’t really hear you talk about this. I’d be curious to hear more. This is why I identify as a non-skeptical heretic. I’d be curious to hear if you put yourself in that camp too.

What are some of the market friendly solutions? Is some kind of carbon regulation necessary (whether cap-and-trade or carbon tax or Hanson’s tax and dividend)? Isn’t carbon regulation at its heart a left-leaning solution? Is there market incentive to moving to carbon free energy. Wind and sunshine are free and don’t get used up–it seems that there ought to be a market solution. Consumers pay less for energy. Companies that offer such services ought to be competitive. I’ve done back-of-the-envelop calculations that suggest that reducing captured CO2 to liquid fuels using carbon free energy (solar, wind, or nuclear) might be profitable given today’s oil prices. Why aren’t these solutions being pursued?

Well, you get the point. If CO2 is a pollutant, then cleaning it up becomes part of the price of producing it. But only if the government makes the oil and power companies (oops–more government regulations) clean it up.  Right? That’s how externalities are properly dealt with. Then the price gets passed on to the consumer. Of course, in the process other solutions (e.g. renewables) may gain some ground. Anyway, is there really a right-leaning solution? Should we press for cap-and-trade as a pseudo-market solution (which doesn’t seem to be working so well in the EU after all, but seemed to work for SOx)?

Some might argue that Christians shouldn’t necessarily be wedded to right-wing politics. I’m all for not letting faith get tangled up in politics, although I’m also a firm believer that faith has implications for all of life, including politics. Suffice it now to say that right-leaning evangelicals find support in a Christian worldview for their views of limited government and individual liberty.

Bottom line–I’m convinced that global warming is true and that human produced CO2 is the chief culprit. And I’m doing all the low carbon footprint things I’m supposed to be doing. What conservative solutions am I supposed to advocate to take care of this problem?

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