According to a growing body of scientific evidence, the earth is approaching a tipping point on climate change. With the likely enactment of new federal regulations, North Carolina has the opportunity to begin tackling this tough issue head on. If we pass on this opportunity, the federal government is required to draw up our plan for us.
In June 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a draft rule designed to cut carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants in the U.S. by almost one-third by 2030. Known as the "Clean Power Plan," this federal rule recognizes that gases emitted by human activity, principally carbon dioxide resulting from the burning of carbon-based fuels, are building up in the earth's atmosphere at unprecedented levels and causing climate change. With release of the final rule expected this summer, now is the time for leaders in North Carolina to combine forces: we need input from both the public and private sectors to forge a robust plan for how our State can best navigate the transition to more sustainable energy sources for our electricity sector.
The Clean Power Plan presents clear challenges for our State. Coal is currently the fuel source for about 40 percent of North Carolina’s electricity, and the rule is explicitly designed to force electric utilities to find less polluting alternatives. As a result, the rule has the potential to affect both the affordability and reliability of electric power, which is a fundamental underpinning of our quality of life and favorable business climate.
Not surprisingly, North Carolina’s power companies, along with environmental and economic regulators, were quick to point out such problems during the comment period for EPA's draft rule, which closed on December 1, 2014. Duke Energy, NC's Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and other key stakeholders in North Carolina submitted hundreds of pages of comments, raising a host of legal and technical concerns. As a result of such comments, the Clean Power Plan is sure to change when issued in its final form. Furthermore, it is possible that portions of the rule will be overturned in the courts due to legal challenges. North Carolina's Governor's Office is a part of a multi-state lawsuit challenging EPA's authority to regulate carbon in this fashion.
Most legal experts agree, however, that the odds of the rule surviving in something close to its current form are strong. Though it includes a federal mandate, the Clean Power Plan has been designed by EPA to provide states with the flexibility to meet the standard by a range of options, including switching to cleaner-burning fuels and power sources, promoting energy efficiency to reduce electricity demand, and trading credits among states. States across the country, including coal-dependent neighbors here in the Southeast such as South Carolina and Kentucky, have begun considering how best to the implement the rule.
There is a strong practical argument for North Carolina to do the same. New research from Duke University's Nicholas Institute suggests that – thanks, in part, to forward looking policies already in place – North Carolina is well positioned to meet EPA's targeted carbon dioxide emission reductions in a manner that minimizes impact on electricity costs. Meeting this goal, however, will require engaging a wide range of informed decision makers who share a commitment to finding ways to make the Clean Power Plan work for North Carolina. The alternative is far less appealing; states that choose not to create their own implementation plan will be subject to a plan developed by EPA.
Some critics of the Clean Power Plan question the fairness of requiring North Carolina's electricity ratepayers to shoulder the burden of fixing a global problem. Yet our State has a substantial stake in both the problem, and the solution. Southeastern states in the U.S. actually contribute to climate change on a global scale. In 2011, there were only four countries in the world with carbon dioxide emissions from energy-related sources that exceeded the combined emissions of Southeastern states.
For North Carolina, this global problem already has significant and growing local effects. Recent reports document the ways in which these trends endanger our region's economic vitality as well as human health and wellbeing. Global warming brings with it drought, which depletes water supplies and hurts farmers that provide our food. Rising temperatures also heighten ozone pollution, making it harder to breathe in urban areas and increasing the risk of heatstroke – which is already a major public health threat. The buildup of moisture in the earth’s atmosphere is leading to more extreme weather events that cause flooding across the state, landslides for mountain communities, and lightning that increases the risk of forest fires. Our coastal communities are all-too aware of the growing risks posed by sea-level rise and increased storm surge.
By deciding to make a serious effort to reduce the carbon dioxide emitted by our power plants, North Carolina could lead the way for other Southeastern states – as we have on many other issues in the past. In doing so, our State's leaders will not only help protect the quality of life for present and future generations of North Carolinians. We have the opportunity to take up a problem affecting human beings across the globe and to help turn the tide of climate change. Let's take it.