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Mitch McConnell's "just say no" strategy on the Clean Power Plan fizzles

GOP version of patriotism.
GOP version of patriotism.
(Shutterstock)

Back in March, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell encouraged states to "just say no" to the Clean Power Plan. He meant that they should refuse to develop state plans to implement the rules, which would require all states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from their electricity sectors.

As a political gesture, it was petulant. As advice, it was ... a political gesture. What's remarkable is that McConnell got the media and the political class to take it seriously, at least for a while.

But now it seems that states are abandoning McConnell's strategy, having discovered that it is stupid. The signals are becoming ever clearer that although a notional partisan battle over the Clean Power Plan will continue, behind the scenes almost all states have resigned themselves to developing compliance plans. The reasons are simple:

  • Outside far-right circles, the effort to reduce carbon pollution is popular. Polling by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication finds that restricting CO2 pollution and requiring a minimum of clean power from utilities are policies supported by majorities of voters, even in states that are suing to stop the Clean Power Plan.
climate opinion (Yale Climate Opinion Maps)
  • State executives have realized that the only tangible effect of refusing to create a compliance plan is that the feds will create one for them, which will almost certainly cost more. Refusing to write a state plan is a pointless gesture, meant to placate the conservative base, and it will only backfire — such maneuvers are extremely popular with Republicans in Congress, but Republicans running state agencies don't have that luxury.
  • The Clean Power Plan has not created the shift away from coal; that's a result of other trends that have been underway for a while. Even if the CPP vanished tomorrow, the trends would continue. Utilities are going to have to grapple with them one way or another, and a state compliance plan gives them cover to make overdue changes.

All that has been brought home in particularly piquant fashion in the heart of Appalachia recently. West Virginia, even as it joins the lawsuit against the CPP, will submit a compliance plan after all. To understand why, it helps to reference a blunt speech to a state energy summit from Charles Patton, head of West Virginia's largest power utility, Appalachian Power. Patton is no undercover greenie. He likes coal. He opposes the Clean Power plan and supports the state's lawsuit against it. But he has to deal with reality.

Three realities every utility executive understands

Here are the top three things Patton emphasized. (David Gutman of the WV Gazette has the story.)

1) Coal can't compete on price anymore.

By 2026, Patton said, Appalachian Power expects its use of coal power to be down 26 percent, with or without the Clean Power Plan.

That’s because of cheaper alternatives and already-imposed environmental regulations that make coal uncompetitive, Patton said.

The cost of natural gas electricity, including construction of power plants and infrastructure, is about $73 per megawatt hour, Patton said. For a conventional coal plant, it’s $95 per megawatt hour.

Even wind power, which is less dependable than coal, is still significantly cheaper, at $73 per megawatt hour, when a longstanding tax credit for wind energy production is factored in.

An advanced coal power plant, with carbon capture and storage to lower emissions, costs nearly twice as much, at $144 per megawatt hour, Patton said.

There is no reason to think the price of coal power is going to come down substantially anytime soon, whether or not the CPP ever goes into effect. Natural gas may swing up and down, but the cost of wind power is only going in one direction. Why would anyone build a coal-fired power plant under those circumstances?

2) The political argument has been lost.

What’s more, the debate over the "war on coal," which sucks up so much of the political air in West Virginia, has largely been settled in other states, Patton said.

He said 72 percent of Americans believe the earth is getting warmer and that man-made causes are partly attributable. Nearly two-thirds of Americans favor stricter emissions limits on greenhouse gases, Patton said, with even larger majorities among young people.

"Americans believe there is a problem, and while we in West Virginia believe that’s ludicrous and we have our view on coal, it’s really important to understand, if you’re not in a coal-producing state, your affinity for coal is not there," Patton said. "The debate, largely, at this point in time, has been lost."

The "war on coal" still has some ability to fire up the conservative base, but even there, its power is fading. The brutal fact is that the coal mining industry isn't that big an employer, even in states where it is concentrated, and since people's power bills are being reduced by natural gas and wind, there's a limited supply of outrage to draw on.

3) All of this will continue no matter who is elected in 2016.

"If we believe that we can just change administrations and this issue is going to go away," Patton said, "we’re making a terrible mistake."

If the Clean Power Plan survives a legal challenge, there's some chance a Republican president such as Marco Rubio would delay or weaken it. (There's even a possibility, if the GOP took the presidency and Congress, and got rid of the filibuster, that Republicans could vote to repeal the EPA's authority over carbon altogether, though chances for that are fairly remote.) Perhaps a President Rubio could also weaken EPA's mercury rules and smog rules and water rules; maybe he could choke off all federal support for wind and solar; maybe he could make natural gas more expensive.

But it's unlikely any president will be able to do enough, on enough fronts, to push back all the forces crushing coal in the US. Conservatives love to stand athwart history, yelling, "Stop!" but history usually doesn't listen.

don quixote
Not a good model for state government.
(Shutterstock)

State officials don't have time to play Quixote

The only strategy against the Clean Power Plan that ever had any chance of success is one that goes through the Supreme Court; some 24 state attorneys filed lawsuits against it the second it was published.

Those lawsuits will work their way up to SCOTUS eventually. By extending the deadline for state plans in the second and final version of its rule, EPA has acknowledged that the fate of the plan will remain uncertain until the court decides.

But McConnell's "just say no" nonsense is already fading. No state leader is going to roll the dice on the Supreme Court's decision, risking the imposition of a federal plan in a few years. They're going to get started, if only as a precaution.

So then, consider: Over the next two years, utilities and state officials will begin working out plans that will bring their electric power systems more in line with strong market trends that are already underway. They are likely to find (as they have with virtually every other EPA regulation in history) that compliance is much easier and more affordable than they expected, and that a shift away from coal toward clean energy and efficiency will save their ratepayers money.

Say, after two years, that President Rubio and his Republican Congress repeal the Clean Power Plan altogether. Are states going to throw out that work and abandon those plans?

I kind of doubt it. The utility business is capital-intensive and slow-moving. It wants a predictable path ahead. If a coal-friendly utility in the heart of Appalachia has come to terms with the decline of coal, you can bet other utilities have as well. But right now, at least in conservative states, they are in a weird and uncomfortable position, stuck between unambiguous market trends on one side and posturing local politicians on the other.

In the end, having been prompted by (at least the threat of) the Clean Power Plan to begin grappling with these trends in earnest, utilities are unlikely to return to their head-in-the-sand posture. And they are likely to have more influence over state politicians than the likes of Mitch McConnell.

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