Editorial: It’s about time power plants pay for the harm they do
Because a squabbling Congress has been unable to act while the world warms and the weather grows weirder, President Obama reached out Tuesday and by executive action, began turning down the thermostat. The broad, albeit at times vague, plan of action outlined by Obama is no substitute for a tax on carbon or some other measure to make those who generate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases pay for the harm caused by the emissions.
But it calls upon the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants like PSNH’s Merrimack Station for the first time. That’s a huge step, one that potentially drives another nail into the coffin of the aged coal power plant in Bow and nearly 600 others like it.
The new carbon standards are to be applied on a regional basis and give states flexibility in how to meet them. They will be contested vigorously by the coal and utility industry and face legal challenges and efforts to blunt their effectiveness by Republicans in Congress. But the coal and utility industries have had a free carbon ride for more than a century. They should be required to pay for the damage they do to health and the environment, though for many plants that price will be unaffordable. The headline on the National Geographic’s website yesterday read “Obama unveils climate strategy: End of the line for U.S. coal power?”
Obama’s plan will do more than regulate existing power plants. It includes federal spending to help threatened states and nations prepare to cope with rising sea levels and other consequences of climate change. It raises energy efficiency standards for trucks, buses and other large vehicles, and increases incentives to increase the use of wind, solar and other cleaner power sources. The use of wind as a power source has doubled in the United States in the last three years alone, and solar power quintupled in the last five, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Admittedly, starting from a small base made that easy, but federal incentives, plus advances in technology, the environmental group contends, makes it possible to simultaneously reduce the nation’s reliance on coal and the cost of electricity. We hope they’re right.
The new regulations add urgency to the need for a legislative discussion about whether to require that Public Service divest itself of its generating plants, whether the survival of the Bow plant makes sense, and who will pay and how workers might be retrained if the plant is closed.
This past year has been the warmest on record. Some of that warming can be attributed to fossil-fueled power plants, which warm the environment by emitting greenhouse gases and by returning cooling water to the environment in vast quantities. That water, research done by the University of New Hampshire and City College of New York found, loses relatively little of its heat directly to the atmosphere. Instead, the hot water from thermoeletric plants, nuclear power plants included, warms the nation’s rivers and sends warm water into warming seas.
Moving the nation away from fossil-fuel plants, as the president’s plan will do, would cool the waters and clean the air. Its implementation will also put the nation in a better position to ask the world’s other polluters to take steps that may be necessary to keep the planet inhabitable. It’s about time.