Environmentalists, journalists, administration officials and industry flacks have all hyped the Clean Power Plan as the strongest climate action in history, but the 1560-page text provides plenty of evidence for my case that it’s merely the fourth-strongest climate action of the Obama era. I found a few nuggets that were even weaker than I expected, including a remarkable footnote suggesting that states can do nothing to reduce emissions for nine years and still comply with the rule.
Still, I have to admit the overall plan is actually stronger than I expected yesterday, and much stronger than the toothless draft plan I ridiculed in May. So before I resume harping about the plan’s unambitious goals for the grid, and the various ways its defenders and critics are exaggerating its impact, let me discuss how the EPA fixed the draft’s most glaring absurdities, because these changes have been largely overlooked. The media have focused on modest tweaks to non-binding national goals—emissions are now expected to drop 32 percent by 2030, versus 30 percent in the draft, and coal is expected to provide 27 percent of our power instead of 31 percent—but those aren’t the changes that matter.
What matters are the changes to binding state targets, and those changes are not modest. They also have serious political implications. The original draft took it easiest on states with the heaviest reliance on dirty fossil fuels—states that nevertheless complained the most about Obama’s supposedly draconian plan. The final rule cracks down much harder on those states, while taking it much easier on states that are already moving toward cleaner sources of electricity.
Check out this excellent chart compiled by my colleague Alex Guillen. North Dakota would have been required to cut emissions just 10.6 percent to comply with the draft rule, the least of any state; it will have to cut emissions 44.9 percent to comply with the final rule, the most of any state except for similarly fossil-fueled Montana and South Dakota. Coal-rich Wyoming, Kentucky, West Virginia and Indiana were also among the biggest losers in the revised plan. Meanwhile, the states that are already greening their grid—led by Washington, Oregon and New York—were the biggest winners in the final rule.
That is a radical change. The EPA acknowledged in the plan that it “rectifies what would have been an inefficient, unintended outcome of putting the greater reduction burden on lower-emitting sources and states.” As EPA air quality chief Janet McCabe explained to me in an interview: “We got a lot of comments making the same point you did.” But it hasn’t gotten attention, perhaps because coal-state politicians cried wolf so loudly about the draft. It’s the result of a decision to calculate emissions according to a uniform measurement for every power plant rather than a weirdly calibrated analysis of what’s reasonable for individual states.
But whether or not the new approach is more technically or legally defensible, getting tougher on dirtier states could have a dramatic effect on results, because states like Kentucky and West Virginia were always unlikely to do any more than the legal minimum, while states like California and Massachusetts are unlikely to stop their transitions to cleaner energy once they achieve compliance.
So yes, when Mitch McConnell is calling on states to refuse compliance with the plan, they don't have to do anything until 2024 at the earliest anyway. And that means AG Jack Conway here in Kentucky, who is fighting the plan hard, really isn't fighting anything because Kentucky doesn't have to actually do anything for nine years.
That's kind of the dirty secret of the EPA plan, it doesn't actually do anything as far as forcing compliance for nearly a decade.
And another decade of carbon pollution is certainly not going to help things.