The Terrifying Math Of The Clean Power Plan

09/29/2016 04:50 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2016
Steam rises form the cooling towers of the Burbank Water and Power natural gas-fueled power plant on June 24, 2013 in Burbank
Kevork Djansezian via Getty Images
Steam rises form the cooling towers of the Burbank Water and Power natural gas-fueled power plant on June 24, 2013 in Burbank, California.

In their excellent book, Big World, Small Planet: Abundance within Planetary Boundaries, authors Johan Rockström and Mattias Klum argue that, in order to live within the planet’s ecological limits, we must first understand what those limits are and then base our decisions and actions on them. For instance, we have known for some time that 350 parts per million of CO2 in our atmosphere is the limit if we are to avoid raising the planet’s temperature 2˚C from preindustrial times. An even more aggressive goal of 1.5˚C appears to be warranted, given the impacts we’re already seeing with the current 1˚C increase. Our response, then, should be to develop a carbon “budget” if we are to meet our target.

Oil Change International’s new report, The Sky’s the Limit, tells us what that budget is. Limiting ourselves to emitting 843 gigatons of CO2 will give us a likely chance of avoiding the 2˚C threshold. We’ll have only a medium chance of missing the 1.5˚C target if we keep emissions to 393 gigatons. Right now, existing oil and gas fields, those under construction, and existing mines will emit 942 gigatons of CO2. In other words, if not one more permit is issued, we will still vastly overspend our budget.

That is the kind of information that should be dictating what our energy policies look like. Instead, politicians and policy makers living in the alternate reality of what is “doable” and “gettable” come up with policies that don’t take the carbon budget into account, policies like the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.

The plan calls for a 32 percent reduction in CO2 emissions nationwide by 2030. On its face, it’s way too little, way too late, and not at all derived from any well thought out plan to stick to a carbon budget. However, a close look at the details of the plan shows that it is far worse than a plan that doesn’t set aggressive enough goals.

As written, the Clean Power Plan will allow states like Pennsylvania to continue and even increase production of fossil fuels. Pennsylvanians Against Fracking has been issuing statements noting the dangers of the plan. Here’s a quick rundown of the facts.

Dirty Dozen Facts about the Clean Power Plan

1. The Clean Power Plan puts natural gas in the clean column. States like Pennsylvania that have gone all in on natural gas production can use it to achieve the plan’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. For Pennsylvania, the target is a 23 percent reduction in emissions by 2030.

2. The Clean Power Plan contains a loophole that allows states, at their discretion, to exempt any new natural gas power plants constructed after January 8, 2014. Pennsylvania submitted a Right-to-Know request to the PA Department of Environmental Protection for a list of natural gas plants approved since January 2014. Plants approved in 2013 and earlier, but that were not built until after January 8, 2014 were not included in the list. Still, the PA DEP responded with a list of 42 new plants approved since January 2014.

3. Three of the plants are expansions. The rest are new plants.

4. Twenty-one of the 42 plants would still be exempt from the plan, even if the loophole were to be closed. That’s because they are plants with a capacity of 25 megawatts or less and the Clean Power Plan only includes those larger than 25 megawatts.

5. If Pennsylvania closed the loophole, counting the emissions from the new gas-fired plants including the emissions from the 21 smaller plants, the state would miss its 23 percent reduction of “stack” emissions target by 4.5 percent.

6. However, that still would not be an accurate accounting of all the emissions. The Clean Power Plan does not take into account anything but emissions coming from the stacks at the power plants. No upstream emissions are included in the plan. In other words, no emissions from things like construction or moving of materials are counted. It also means that none of the powerful methane emissions from natural gas production would be counted, including those from well pads, pipelines, compressor stations, and processing facilities. If they were, Pennsylvania would fall short of its emissions reduction target by a whopping 15 percent, achieving only an unacceptable 8 percent reduction.

7. Once online, the plants’ annual lifecycle emissions would be the equivalent of the consumption of gas by 27.2 million new cars on the road annually, about 4 times the amount of cars on the road in Los Angeles today.

8. The net effect of natural gas production to serve the power sector will be an increase of 72 percent in natural gas consumption by 2030.

9. These calculations are done working backward from the assumption that the more than 40 approved power plants will be built. They don’t take into consideration additional power plants that may be proposed. Pennsylvanians Against Fracking compiled its own list based on press stories and industry sources and found 15 potential plants that are not yet on the PA DEP’s list.

10. Working within the scope of the Clean Power Plan means that the numbers do not take into account emissions from other uses of natural gas, like plastics manufacturing.

11. The Clean Power Plan attempts to reduce coal-generated electricity, but it does nothing to limit coal production. As coal production to serve the nation’s power sector wanes, coal mining to serve the export market may well increase.

12. It is beyond the scope of the Clean Power Plan to address additional climate impacts of continued production of natural gas and coal, like contamination of an increasingly stressed water supply and the disposal of toxic and radioactive drilling waste.

A plan with a greenwashed name to give the public the impression we’re making progress when we’re actually making things much, much worse is the type of creative accounting that has no place in our carbon budget. We need a truly clean power plan.

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