June 3, 2014

Our View: California has left coal behind; now others will, too

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations proposed Monday by the Obama administration will have a familiar ring to Californians, though they’re groundbreaking almost everywhere else.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations proposed Monday by the Obama administration will have a familiar ring to Californians, though they’re groundbreaking almost everywhere else.

Aimed at slashing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, the new rules – similar to the EPA’s recent California-based fuel economy standards – have the larger mission of curbing greenhouse gases. They encourage cap-and-trade markets, similar to those that have been in place here since 2012. And, similar to California’s initiatives, they’re serious about making a difference.

The burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity is one of the largest single contributors to global warming, and the proposed rules would cut power plant emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels in 15 years.

Already, there are threats of lawsuits and congressional intervention. Among the most vehement foes are politicians who get a lot of contributions from the coal industry, which claims that any effort to make it cleaner will kill jobs and burden families.

The critics should calm down. For one thing, the proposed rules are flexible, offering a range of ways to reach the target. For another, the nation already is halfway to the proposed target, thanks to the recent recession and a move to cheaper and cleaner natural gas at many power plants – such as Turlock’s Walnut Energy Center, which was expanded in 2012 and now produces 174 megawatts. Emissions at the Turlock facility are 85 percent lower than those of older generating facilities in California.

Any arguments about jobs are specious. Jobs lost because of fewer coal-fired plants likely will be made up through harnessing other energy sources.

Anyone who has checked in on the natural gas boom in Kern County knows that, whatever fuels the nation’s power plants, energy employment isn’t going anywhere. For instance, the lowest unemployment rate in the nation is in North Dakota, where coal mining had been one of the biggest employers. Now, many of those former surface miners are working in the oil boom from fracking.

Yes, coal jobs will be lost, but they won’t disappear. For instance, Los Angeles’ Department of Water and Power still relies heavily on coal-fired plants. Closer to home, Modesto Irrigation District still gets 15 percent of its energy portfolio from coal power generated in New Mexico – though it will phase out that source by 2017. Turlock buys only 55 megawatts of coal-fired power, less than a third of what it gets from natural gas.

As for families, there are burdens and then there are burdens. Adjusted for inflation, residential electricity rates are at historic lows. And clean air is priceless if you are among the 6.8 million American families with asthmatic children. The asthma rate in our Valley is among the highest in the nation.

Even so, cleaner power plants don’t need to translate into higher electric bills. Among other things, the EPA will give utilities a financial incentive to decrease coal usage by “decoupling” revenue from sales volume – another idea pioneered in California.

Here, utilities long have been able to profit even when less power is used. As a result, though the state has grown dramatically and energy use has soared in the rest of the country, per capita electricity consumption in California has remained flat for 30 years.

State authorities say the rules, as proposed, should pose little difficulty for California, which is already weaning itself from out-of-state coal power.

But if they survive the yearlong comment period and the wrath of critics, the rules will have this local impact: California finally will have some meaningful company in the quest to do something about climate change.

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