Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Clean Power Plan and Pennsylvania

In August 2015, the Obama Administration announced the Clean Power Plan (CPP) that established the first carbon pollution standards in existing power plants, requiring a 32% reduction in carbon pollution below 2005 levels by 2030. States are required to submit a plan or request an extension by September 6, 2016.

Here in our home state of Pennsylvania, the Department of Environmental Protection has solicited for feedback from stakeholders and held 14 public hearings recently. I attended the final hearing last evening in Williamsport, PA, and below is the testimony I gave:

My name is Melinda Hughes, and I live in DuBois, PA. I want to thank you for this opportunity to share my thoughts on Pennsylvania’s role in reducing carbon emissions.  

In addition to being a citizen concerned about the health of our environment, I am also the President and cofounder of the national nonprofit Nature Abounds which has supporters and volunteers across all 50 states. I also hold a Masters Degree in Environmental Law and Policy from Vermont Law School, and I have been working on climate change and effects since about 2005.

At Nature Abounds, we have a significant focus on the effects of climate change from which the world is already experiencing and our children and grandchildren will be far into the future. We can’t have success combating the effects of climate change without reducing carbon emissions as well as other greenhouse gases such as methane.

I strongly support the Clean Power Plan, although I only see reducing carbon emissions as a first step. We need stronger protections to ensure a healthy future for all living creatures. Many flora and fauna species are already having to adapt to the warmer world. Continuing to allow noxious gases and power plants business-as-usual only worsens the problem and our future.

Looking specifically at carbon emissions, a Stanford University study has detailed how for each increase of 1 degree Celsius caused by carbon dioxide, the resulting air pollution would lead annually to about a thousand additional deaths and many more cases of respiratory illness and asthma in the United States. As a result, more than 20,000 air-pollution-related deaths worldwide per year per degree Celsius may be due to this greenhouse gas.

Moving beyond carbon emissions, it is already known that methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas, and in fact, 86 times as powerful as carbon dioxide over a 20 year time-frame. Methane is a powerful contributor to climate change and in 2013 alone, the oil and gas sources emitted over 7.3 million metric tons of methane. This is equivalent to the carbon dioxide emissions from over 160 coal-burning power plants, and in this one year of 2013, methane accounted for about 10% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, according to the EPA website.

With less methane in the atmosphere we also reduce risk. According to the US Department of Energy, the most significant health hazard associated with methane is that it is highly combustible and mixtures of just 5 to 15 percent of methane in air can be explosive. Large concentrations of methane in enclosed areas can lead to suffocation as large amounts of methane will decrease the amount of available oxygen in the air. The effects of oxygen deficiency are nausea, headaches, dizziness, and unconsciousness. These are the effects on normal people, but the risks are even greater for those with health problems, especially respiratory.

This leads me to my next point. Even without a federal rule, Pennsylvania should already have been regulating emissions from power plants and other sources such as fracking operations. Air pollution is known to get trapped between the valleys. In fact, our area is known for having some of the worst air pollution in the country due to air becoming trapped. Likewise, we are also known for some of the highest rates of respiratory issues like lung cancer and COPD. As an example, just walk around a Walmart in the Ebensburg or Johnstown areas and you’ll be shocked at how many customers are wearing oxygen tanks. Adding more air pollution only exacerbates the problem, while reducing toxic emissions will only help.

It makes sense that power plants should reduce their emissions. In fact, according to the EPA, the electric power sector accounted for 32% of U.S. total greenhouse gas emissions in 2012, and greenhouse gas emissions from electricity have increased by about 11% since 1990 as electricity demand has grown and fossil fuels have remained the dominant source for generation. It’s time for the power plants to take responsibility for their pollution, rather than asking the public and our environment to bear the burden. Too often is profit privatized while the effects and clean-up are socialized.  

From an economic standpoint, the move makes sense as well. The Commonwealth’s clean energy industry already employs 57,000 people – more than in the coal industry. By reducing carbon emissions, even the most conservative estimates suggest that Pennsylvania will add more than 5,000 jobs by reducing its carbon emissions.

In closing, I hope that Pennsylvania will take action on carbon emissions, but I’m hoping even more that you will go above and beyond the basic minimum and also reduce methane emissions from other industries such as fracking, and maybe even use that methane as an energy sources. It’s being done in several other states, including California and Vermont, just to name a couple.

The time is now as our children and grandchildren can’t afford to inherit more pollution.  Thank you, again, for allowing me to share my thoughts. 


                                          Homer City, PA power plant, photo from Reuters

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