Competing visions of cataclysm at an EPA hearing


Claire Harrison, of Alpharetta, Ga., protests the EPA during a rally on July 29 in response to a hearing on tougher pollution restrictions. (David Goldman/AP)

On one side were the enviros in “Climate Action Now” T-shirts who came to pass out muffins and stand up for asthmatics. The Obama administration’s plan to force power plants to cut pollution 30 percent by 2030 is absurdly gentle, they argued at a public hearing Tuesday, and too toothless to save what one advocate called “civilization as we’ve known it.”

On the other side of the hearing at the Environmental Protection Agency were the reps for coal companies and coal states, like Rep. Shelly Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who said her constituents see the proposed rule as “condemning our miners to lives of poverty and despair.”

Opponents repeated the familiar argument that regulating greenhouse gases would kill jobs. But supporters said not regulating pollution would have that effect, particularly by hurting tourism.

So which of these competing catastrophic scenarios is more realistic? Sometimes, ‘In the Moment’ readers say that they see me the way environmentalists see the proposed rule — as too moderate and conciliatory. But this time, I have to stand squarely with the muffin suppliers and against the fiction that requiring plants to cut emissions by less than a third — with 2005 levels as the starting point — is radical. There are no limits on carbon pollution from power plants, which produce nearly 40 percent of our greenhouse gases.

As Capito says, “not one single coal plant in West Virginia meets the standard.” But they’d have a full decade before they’d have to show progress. And because her state has so far to go, improvement by a third would be far easier in West Virginia than in states such as California or Washington, where they’ve already made progress.

“With this unprecedented rule,’’ Capito testified, “the EPA has gone far beyond requiring existing coal plants operate as efficiently as possible. Instead, the very framework for this rule is built around shifting the country away from coal.’’ Except that’s happening already.

After her testimony, I asked Capito about the 2,000 coal jobs her state lost in the last two years. Aren’t mining jobs disappearing with or without the rule? “I can see that, but that’s already occurring,’’ she said, with “three more scheduled to close.”

Well, exactly. Mining jobs are going away anyway.

“I would hope not,’’ she said, at a time when countries like China and India are building coal-burning power plants. “There are lots of ideas out there” for making coal cleaner, “but I would dispute you’re going to have a windmill and a solar panel” that will meet demand for power. Particularly when even Democrats from the blue state of Maryland can’t agree on where to put a wind farm.

Isn’t a decade a long time to meet the standard? “That’s a long time, no question,’’ she said, then changed her mind: “It’s not that long.”

Capito is way ahead in her Senate campaign against Natalie Tennant, West Virginia’s secretary of state, whose views on the EPA rule are indistinguishable from Capito’s — or from those of the Democratic Senate candidate in the neighboring state of Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes.

But it’s far from clear that the public in coal-producing states agrees that regulating greenhouse gases would amount to an attack on their state’s economy. On the contrary, a Washington Post-ABC poll published last month found that in states including West Virginia where the majority of electricity is produced by burning coal, 69 percent of respondents said the government should limit greenhouse emissions. That’s versus 71 percent in other states.

The Associated Press reported that retired Kentucky miner Stanley Sturgill, who suffers from black lung disease, testified at a hearing in Denver that the proposed rule “does not do nearly enough to protect the health of the front-line communities. We’re dying, literally dying, for you to help us.”

Others who testified in D.C. on Tuesday included the Moms Clean Air Force, Veterans for Clean Air and representatives of religious groups arguing in favor of the rule. The back-to-back-to back appearance of Sen. Jeff Merkley, (D-Ore.), Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who proudly noted that he’d recently discussed climate change with Pope Francis, only caused a few seconds of confusion.

Rep. Linda T. Sánchez (D-Calif.) said she came to speak for Hispanics: “My constituents stand to lose the most” if the rule isn’t implemented, she argued, because of the high asthma rates among Hispanic children.

Collin O’Mara, chief executive of the National Wildlife Foundation, said that with wetlands drying up and ticks threatening moose from Minnesota to Maine, “I’m here to speak for wildlife, because they can’t speak for themselves.’’

And Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, came to put in a word for federalism, and against “making the EPA more powerful than Congress.”

The comment that most resonated with me came from Henry David Thoreau, via Merkley: “What’s the use of a fine house,’’ asked the proponent of simple living, “if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?”

Although even the commenters themselves didn’t seem to be listening to each other, a second day of hearings will be held Wednesday in the District and in Denver, Pittsburgh and Atlanta. The public can submit written comments through Oct. 16.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.

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