Burn, Baby, Burn

Blake Rutherford On Politics

Burn, Baby, Burn
Blake Rutherford

It’s been eight years since I sat in Little Rock’s Market Street Theater and watched “An Inconvenient Truth,” Vice President Al Gore’s compelling documentary about climate change that went on to win two Academy Awards. In his review of that film, A.O. Scott of The New York Times observed, “That ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ should not have to exist is a reason to be grateful that it does.” The following year Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama took the unprecedented step of issuing new rules to reduce U.S. carbon emissions directly from power plants. The goal is to reduce emissions comprehensively by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. [1] Interestingly, it relies on a state-federal partnership in which Arkansas will devise its own plan for meeting emission reduction targets. [2]

It’s the first ever rule of its kind, but hardly a wild idea considering that the administration’s current goal is to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2014 U.S. Climate Action Report, there are indications that America will reach that goal. So when we also consider that the U.S. has experienced a short-term reduction in emissions, this new endeavor might be the big idea sustainability advocates have been waiting for. [3]

But despite overwhelming data proving that the heat-trapping nature of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide is altering Earth’s temperature and leading to imbalances in sea level, global temperature, and ocean temperature, America continues to grapple with global warming and its effects on our climate, particularly as it pertains to coal. [4]

This is due in significant part to cost of changing course. Put simply, energy production and supply are essential to Arkansas’ economy.

So it’s no surprise that Obama’s announcement was met with near-universal opposition from Arkansas’ congressional delegation. In his statement, Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor expressed serious concerns for the proposed EPA rules and their effects on the “affordable and reliable electricity Arkansans currently enjoy.” Republican Sen. John Boozman, along with GOP Reps. Tim Griffin and Tom Cotton, also oppose the new rules. And of course Cotton took the opportunity to attack Pryor for his vote to “rubber-stamp Obama’s nomination of radical EPA head Gina McCarthy.”

List to Blake Talk About the EPA on 'The Alice Stewart Show'

Senseless as that particular attack was, chiding the EPA has become opportune politics in Arkansas, and, as with other key battleground states across America, the new rules pose little chance of finding Democratic advocates before the fall elections. After all, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has called it a job killer that will also raise utility bills. In today’s economic climate - and as we stand on the precipice another hot summer - that should just about do it. [5]

Be that as it may, President Obama’s plan compels, for the first time since the ill-fated national debate over cap-and-trade legislation, a statewide dialogue about energy production, carbon emissions and environmental sustainability.

Here are five reasons why Arkansas should welcome that dialogue.

1. A comprehensive approach to Arkansas’ power system is a good thing.

It was too convenient to declare the EPA rule a “war on coal.” It’s not. But it’s also disingenuous to grapple with the notion that pollution reductions are essential. In 2012, 36 million metric tons of carbon pollution were emitted from power plants in Arkansas, and overall statewide greenhouse gas emissions have risen by more than 16 million metric tons since 1990. It merits a broader review of how Arkansas produces its energy supply and powers its industry sectors. 

Consider that Arkansas has already taken steps to promote energy efficiency statewide. Sponsored by Rep. Kathy Webb and Sen. Shane Broadway, Act 1494 of 2009 established specific performance criteria and goals for sustainable, energy efficient buildings at institutions of higher education. And Gov. Mike Beebe issued Executive Order 09-07, calling on all executive branch agencies to develop a Strategic Energy Plan with the goal of reducing annual energy costs as well as the environmental impact.

Broadly, the thought leadership is present. The question is whether there will be any additional will. 

2. It could spawn innovative solutions like regional trading programs, which are having positive effects in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic States.

One of the more interesting innovations to combat carbon emissions is the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a nonprofit cooperative that supports state carbon dioxide budget trading programs in nine states.[6] As a component of that program, each of the participating states has adopted its own emission standards that are more than 50 percent below 2005 standards, or well ahead of EPA targets. The states achieve these targets in part through the auction and trade of carbon dioxide allowances, programs adopted by their state legislatures and run by the states free of additional regulation.

The initiative is working. According to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, six of these nine states rank among the top 10 most energy efficient states. Over the course of seven years, the RGGI has reduced pollution in those states by 40 percent. Proceeds from the program are projected to return more than $2 billion in lifetime energy bill savings to more than 3 million participating households and more than 12,000 businesses in the region.

Additionally, the program is projected to off-set the need of 8.5 million megawatt hours of electricity generation; save 37 million mmBTUs of fossil fuels; and prevent the release of 8 million short tons of carbon dioxide pollution into the atmosphere. In three years it has created 16,000 new jobs and generated $700 million in energy investment.

3. It could bridge the current divide over statewide renewable portfolio standards.

Arkansas is one of 12 states without a Renewable Portfolio Standard, Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard, or a Renewable or Alternative Energy Goal. This, even amid evidence that renewable portfolio standards reduced U.S. emissions by 4 percent from 1997 to 2010.

Renewable resources are more expensive today, which often leads to price increases. That increase, of course, could draw down demand and compel consumers to be more aware of their consumption habits. Still, it’s a multifarious proposition politically, particularly for a state like Arkansas that maintains such a reliance on coal.  

4. It could establish a plan for harnessing the energy boom, particularly natural gas, as a core component of electricity generation.

Natural gas emits 50 to 60 percent the amount of carbon dioxide as coal when burned for electricity, for example, so by running Arkansas power plants at 75 percent natural gas, Arkansas would see a reduction in carbon emissions by 30 percent in 2020 compared to 2011 levels, according to the World Resources Institute. While natural gas is not a panacea, it is certainly a step in the right direction. Consider that in 2012, total electricity from natural gas increased 50 percent over 2008 levels in Arkansas. In 2012, the WRI determined, “Arkansas’ most efficient natural gas plants generated much less electricity than they were capable of producing.”

Considering the energy landscape holistically, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that natural gas supply will increase 44 percent by 2040, driven almost entirely by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in places like the Fayetteville Shale Play, so its role in America’s domestic energy mix will be significant for years to come.   

5. Modernization could continue to spur economic advancement in Arkansas.

Modernizing power plants will provide jobs and economic opportunities across the United States, including Arkansas. According to Dr. James Heitz at UMass-Amherst,Installing modern pollution controls and building new power plants creates a wide array of skilled, high-paying installation, construction and professional jobs, as well as jobs at companies that manufacture pollution controls and other required construction/maintenance equipment,” among other direct and indirect benefits.

In 2012, the Economic Policy Institute found that greener industries grow faster than the overall economy, and that green jobs often are accessible to workers without a college degree. That same year, EPI ranked Arkansas number 6 on its list of “Ten States with the Greenest Workforce,” ahead of all other states in the South and Midwest.[7] If neighboring states thwart advancements in green technology, Arkansas could continue to find itself in an auspicious economic position. 

In the very big matter of climate change, the man-made problem is readily visible and the solutions, difficult though they may be for certain business sectors to accept, will ultimately improve the state of things. What is particularly attractive about this proposal is that Arkansas has an ability to establish its own way and thereby improve its own lot. Challenging as it may seem, it is an opportunity not to be squandered.

The erosion of the Earth is, after all, universal.   


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[1] Gore said that Obama’s climate change initiative is “the most important step taken to combat the climate crisis in our country’s history.”

[2] The EPA established state-by-state reduction targets, and in Arkansas the goal is to reduce carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030.

[3] Emissions have fallen 15 percent between 2005 and 2013. Obama has taken other important steps to reduce emissions. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 invested billions of dollars in wind and solar power. The administration has also raised fuel economy standards and placed significant restrictions on the construction of new coal power plants.

[4] Excessive heat, extreme precipitation, increases in ground-level ozone, the presence of fine particulate matter, and changes in allergens can have a substantial impact on public health. Extreme weather conditions compromise food security in certain parts of the world, lead to malnutrition, and the spread of infectious diseases, particularly in developing nations.

[5] Even though a recent poll from Public Policy Polling found that voters approve a 30 percent reduction in carbon pollution from existing power plants by a margin of 53 percent to 35 percent. Independents support the reduction by a greater margin, 59 percent to 29 percent.

[6] Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.

[7] Arkansas’ current commitment is real. The Arkansas Economic Development Commission offers, for example, a series of programs, including the Arkansas Energy Technology Loan Fund and the Arkansas Green Technology Grant Program to spur investment in these sectors.

(Blake Rutherford is vice president of The McLarty Companies and previously was chief of staff to the Arkansas attorney general. You can follow him on Twitter at BlakeRutherford. His column appears every other Wednesday in the weekly Government & Politics e-newsletter. You can subscribe for free here.)

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