Ding, Dong, the Clean Power Plan is Dead

Photo by: "Environmental Disaster," by Alex Proimos, cropped. Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Ding, Dong, the Clean Power Plan is dead. Them’s fightin’ words in environmental circles. I know. I serve on the steering committee of Pennsylvanians Against Fracking where we spent much of last year analyzing the plan and challenging the green organizations who were promoting it. Of course, no self-respecting treehugger wants to see anything thrown away that can be fixed, so I’m not cheering its demise, really. I’m just glad that the plan will not go forward as written.

The plan represented the best any administration has ever been able to advance. It established targets for reductions in fossil fuel emissions from the power sector. Thanks to the Purdue University study published earlier this month, we now know that emissions from natural gas power plants are between 21 and 120 times higher than the EPA estimated in its most recent greenhouse gas inventory. Reducing emissions in the power sector is important.

As written, however, the Clean Power Plan set forth very weak targets. In addition, states would have been required to report on stack emissions only, not any of the very concerning upstream emissions that include all of the methane leaks at every point in the production of natural gas that have been the central climate argument against fracking. Perhaps the biggest problem with the plan, however, was the loophole in the plan that would have allowed states, at their discretion, to exempt any natural gas power plants built after January 8, 2014 from the reporting requirements of the plan. That meant that new power plants, designed to be in service for more decades than we can afford them to be in service, would have emitted greenhouse gases unchecked at the same time that states would appear to be meeting targets for emissions reductions from older plants.

Our steering committee submitted Right-to-Know requests of our Department of Environmental Protection to find out how many new natural gas power plants they’d approved since the beginning of 2014. In a state that currently has 300 power plants all told, the response was a staggering 47 new plants. The realization that a state that had gone all in on fracking was likely to take advantage of the exemption set off an avalanche of power plant applications.

In fact, the Clean Power Plan would have made things worse had it been implemented and has made things worse now that it’s been scrapped. In addition to having to fight Trump over every environmental protection put in place over several decades, we now have 47 new natural gas power plants to fight.

Of course, all of this couldn’t be happening at a worse time. We are warming the planet at an alarming rate. If our federal government won’t save us, then we have to look to the states. After all, states have a great deal of legal and regulatory authority over the protection of our environment.

Maryland’s Republican governor and the state legislature understand that. Last night, the state Senate passed a bill enacting a permanent ban on fracking. Governor Larry Hogan held a press conference earlier this month expressing his support of the bill that had already been passed by the House.

The Senate vote came on the same day that Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection approved two new injection wells where fracking waste would be deposited (think Oklahoma earthquakes). The agency has issued new gas drilling permits at the rate of one every 1.25 hours since Governor Wolf took office. Wolf has worked to expand the customer base for natural gas with a program that moves $24 million from an alternative energy to fund the building of more natural gas distribution lines that connect schools, hospitals, and business parks to natural gas service. His office recently issued a report indicating that Western Pennsylvania can support four more ethane cracker plants in addition to the Royal Dutch Shell plant recently approved in Beaver County. Shell has received the biggest tax break in the state’s history, $1.65 billion, to build the cracker that breaks down ethane molecules to produce the ethylene needed to manufacture plastics. Let’s not forget about all of those natural gas power plants, either. The state doesn’t need all of that electricity. We’re going to export it. New plants mean more pipelines to feed them gas, of course, and all of that gas is going to come from the already hard hit areas of the state that have the misfortune of sitting atop the Marcellus and Utica shale formations. Wolf may as well be on Trump’s team.

The Clean Power Plan is gone, but we’re left with its terrible legacy in a state where our government officials are far too preoccupied with serving the best interests of the oil & gas industry than serving those of the people and natural resources they are in office to protect. By the way, we also asked the great environmental protectors at the DEP how many natural gas power plants they’d considered since the beginning of 2014. 47. Same number. They didn’t reject a single power plant proposal.

Now, if you’ll excuse me. I need to go house hunting in Maryland.