07/03/2014 11:26 am ET Updated Sep 02, 2014

Energy Sharing

Some conservatives are misguidedly criticizing President Obama's carbon emission reduction plan by asserting that states -- not the federal government -- should take the lead in coordinating energy policy.

A case in point is Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity. In an op-ed piece for the conservative Washington Times newspaper, Phillips argues that states are better equipped than Washington to have the last word in regulating their own sources and citizens' use of electricity.

But regulation is not just about electricity consumption. Phillips makes no reference to the effect of the states' energy usage on the nation's climate and the public's respiratory health. Since climate impacts transcend state boundaries, only the federal government possesses the overview to administer the big picture.

Left to their own devices, individual states could work at cross purposes from national wellbeing. They could tailor their regulation to encourage the use of heavily polluting energy sources that happened to be plentiful within their own borders. It might be an easy way out for an individual state in the short term from a cost perspective. But what about the impact of trans-boundary pollution on neighboring states, not to mention the setback to combatting global warming and its adverse ramifications on a national scale?

In short, permitting each state to have the ultimate say on energy regulation within its boundaries could easily lead to chaotic fragmentation and cumulative disaster. An enormous national carbon surge could occur if even a few states allowed generation of electricity at unacceptable emission levels. For example, you could have an instance where a Midwest state made heavy use of its bountiful supply of dirty coal, thereby contributing to an accelerated rise in sea levels and more severe storm damage to coastal states.

Obama's emission reduction plan promotes increased use of clean renewable energy to phase out heavily polluting fossil fuels, largely through implementation of Renewable Portfolio Standards. These Standards require a state's utilities to provide a certain percentage of their power through solar, wind, or other forms of renewable energy. At least 29 states and the District of Columbia already have such Standards in place.

But Phillips finds fault with the mandated renewable Standards, claiming they drive up the cost of electricity bills and kill jobs.

On the contrary, the Standards have cost caps to protect consumers, create numerous jobs in the renewable energy field, and have attracted private investment. According to a study by Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory, the cost impact of mandated renewable energy in most states is less than two percent or a $1.60 on an $80 a month electricity bill. This seems like a paltry price to pay for improved air quality and public health.

As for Phillips complaining that Obama's federal carbon initiative renders the states powerless, wrong again. States may not have autonomy in setting carbon emission standards under Obama's blueprint, but they do have flexibility in meeting those standards. And that is how it should be.