This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on March 23, 2016.
Unlike prior regulatory efforts to improve air quality by reducing toxic emissions, the EPA’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) aims to cut non-toxic carbon dioxide emissions by about a third. The stated reason is to slow the increase of the Earth’s temperature by 0.018 degrees Celsius by 2100.
Back when one of the aims of the EPA was merely clean air and water, mitigating air pollution from industrial sources typically entailed installing emissions control equipment, often at great cost. But, the net result was cleaner air.
The challenge with reducing carbon dioxide emissions is that carbon dioxide and water are typically the two emissions products that experts strive to produce as they are the two non-toxic products of clean fossil fuel combustion. Short of entombing carbon dioxide deep underground, an experimental process known as sequestration, the only ways of reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power generation are to switch fuels and/or improve efficiency.
The EPA’s Clean Power Plan will require far more than a bit of fuel switching, however, with a mandate on 47 states and three Native American tribal nations to make substantial cuts in carbon dioxide emissions or else face the prospect of being forced to comply with a federal plan—in effect, resulting in a nationalization of the electric grid.
One place where the EPA’s 1,500-page regulatory diktat will hit particularly hard is the Navajo Nation, at 27,000 square miles, an area larger than West Virginia in northeast Arizona and adjoining slices of Utah and New Mexico. Home to 174,000 people, many of them without electricity, running water or steady work, the Navajo Nation is also host to two large coal-fired power plants and the two coal mines that feed them. These energy sector activities provide well-paying jobs as well as more than half of the Navajo Nation’s governmental income.
Even before the threat from the Clean Power Plan, the Navajo power plants have been under sustained environmental pressure. The larger of the two, the Navajo Generating Station, installed more than $700 million of air quality equipment in the past 20 years to improve winter visibility over the Grand Canyon to levels not seen since the onset of mankind’s influence over the environment, as if we actually know what visibility was over the Grand Canyon 300 years ago. Regulators want another $1.1 billion in additional air quality upgrades with very tenuous cost-benefit ratios at best. The other power plant was recently forced to prematurely shut down 3 of 5 boilers, making the nearby coal mine operations less profitable and forcing the Navajo Nation to buy out the mine from BHP Billiton to keep the mine—and the power plant—open and preserve the jobs.
The bigger issue environmentalists have with the Navajo Generation Station is that it is responsible for pumping Colorado River water uphill from Arizona’s border with California—water that sustains 5 million people and lucrative farms in the desert. For primeval idealists, this is a mortal sin against the gods of sustainability made worse by the fact that affordable and reliable coal energy makes it all possible.
Should the EPA and environmentalists get their way and power output from the Navajo Generation Station is cut back, they propose replacing the lost power with wind. This challenge is two-fold: one, the best spot for wind turbines on the Navajo Nation overlaps an important eagle migratory path; and two, wind is notoriously erratic, making wind power uniquely unsuited to power the Central Arizona Project’s massive water works.
Lastly, as we are reminded yet again that the world we live in is dangerous and unpredictable, it is worthwhile to note that our power grid is a vital part of our national security. The main fuel that has replaced coal over the past few years is natural gas. But, unlike coal, natural gas generators don’t carry large fuel reserves onsite—they typically generate power from gas coming right from the pipeline—cut off the gas flow and you cut off the electricity. Thus, from a national security standpoint, including a substantial place for coal in our power mix is prudent.
The EPA’s Clean Power Plan has been delayed by the U.S. Supreme Court. But, if the courts allow it to proceed, it will result in higher electricity costs, lost jobs, and a lower standard of living. These effects will be felt most readily on the Navajo Nation (as shown in this short video about the issue).
We all deserve better than the EPA’s all pain and no gain scheme that mirrors the cap-and-trade plan considered and rejected by Congress numerous times over the past decade.
Chuck DeVore is Vice President of National Initiatives at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He was a California Assemblyman and is a Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army Retired Reserve.