Industrial smokestacks directly emit particle pollution, but they also emit sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which react in the atmosphere to form fine particle pollution. Photo courtesy U.S. EPA
Industrial smokestacks directly emit particle pollution, but they also emit sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which react in the atmosphere to form fine particle pollution. Photo courtesy U.S. EPA

By Gabe Rivin

In a panel discussion last week, state and federal government officials and environmental advocates lauded what they said would be the wide-reaching health benefits of a proposed federal climate-change plan.

The Clean Power Plan, a national proposal released in June, intends to reduce power plants’ emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that scientists say causes climate change. The proposed plan aims, by 2030, to reduce power plants’ carbon emissions 30 percent below their levels from 2005.

Marguerite McLamb, a policy advisor at EPA, said that the agency’s Clean Power Plan would lead to reductions in harmful air pollutants in addition to carbon reductions. Photo credit: Kat Bawden

Speakers on the panel at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s school of law last Friday said the plan would cause reductions in harmful air pollution, a result from a decreased reliance on dirty energy such as coal.

But the optimism of the panelists comes even as a group of U.S. governors – including North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory – has publicly opposed the plan. In a Sept. 9 letter to President Obama, McCrory, along with 14 other Republican governors, challenged the federal government’s legal power to issue the Clean Power Plan regulations. The regulations, they said, also raise a number of practical issues for their states.

Hoped-for health benefits

The overwhelming scientific consensus is that climate change is a dire threat to human health and that only through a dramatic cut in carbon emissions will humans be able to prevent extreme weather, severe draughts and large sea-level rises, among other environmental and health threats. In the U.S., about 33 percent of carbon emissions come from the power sector, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency statistics.

But cutting carbon emissions comes with a number of so-called co-benefits for human health, according to the panelists and the EPA, which is developing the plan.

“Certainly, the EPA analysis shows that there will be some criteria pollutant reductions as a result of implementation of the rule, and that will obviously lead to lower levels of ozone or fine particles,” said Sheila Holman, director of the Division of Air Quality at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and a speaker at Friday’s event.

Criteria pollutants are six common air pollutants that the EPA and state governments regulate, and include carbon monoxide and lead. Fine particles, also generated from power plants and car pollution, put humans at a greater risk of heart disease and lung disease, according to research.

“Those lower levels [of pollution] will result in improved air quality for the state and improved health for the citizens,” Holman said.

Panelists Jonas Monast from Duke University’s School of Law (right) and Jeremy Tarr from Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions discussed both the health effects of the EPA’s plan and its legal basis, a point of contention among the Obama administration and the plan’s opponents. Photo credit: Kat Bawden

The Clean Power Plan attempts to cut carbon emissions in part by shifting the nation’s energy supply toward cleaner sources, like renewables and natural gas. Coal, by far the largest source of electricity in the U.S., not only releases carbon dioxide when it’s burned for fuel but its smokestacks emit a number of other harmful pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide and mercury.

The EPA estimates that, under its plan, between 12 and 19 percent of the nation’s coal fleet would be uneconomical to keep in service by 2020. By forcing utilities to rely on energy with lower carbon profiles, the EPA’s plan will reduce other, harmful air pollutants, panelists said.

Marguerite McLamb, a policy advisor with the EPA and a speaker on the panel, said the health benefits of the plan would be significant. Reducing carbon emissions, she said, would also reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, all of which harm respiratory health.

Some of those reductions may be large. According to the agency, by 2030 the Clean Power Plan will reduce emissions of those pollutants by 25 percent. As a result, the rule will prevent 150,000 asthma attacks in children and 6,600 premature deaths nationally, according to agency estimates.

Reducing these secondary air pollutants will offer “human-health benefits like reduced emergency room visits for kids with asthma,” said Greg Andeck, a senior manager at the Environmental Defense Fund and another panelist.

These reductions will save money too, according to the EPA. An EPA analysis says that reducing these air pollutants could produce $62 billion in health benefits.

The agency, however, did not quantify these benefits specifically for North Carolina.

How the plan works

States would retain a large degree of flexibility in their requirement to meet the plan, according to McLamb. States could reduce their power sectors’ carbon emissions by relying on lower-carbon energy sources, such as natural gas or carbon-free renewables, and by promoting energy efficiency.

States could meet the EPA’s requirements on their own or they could band together with other states. Regardless, states must submit their plans to the EPA by June 2016.

Yet that deadline could be an issue in North Carolina.

Holman, the director in DENR’s air-quality division, noted that the EPA has already been sued over the Clean Power Plan, and said the department would like to wait to develop its plans until it knows the fate of the litigation.

Holman said that the state spent several years developing its rules in response to the EPA’s 2005 Clean Air Mercury Rule.

“Shortly thereafter, that Clean Air Mercury rule was vacated,” she said, referring to a 2008 federal court’s decision to strike down the rule.

McLamb said President Obama directed the EPA to develop flexible requirements for carbon reductions, noting that the EPA in recent years has issued a number of regulations affecting the power sector.

“We were directed to stay mindful of the cumulative impact of those different relations,” she said.

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Gabe Rivin

Gabe is our former environmental health reporter from 2014-2016. He is a former editor of The Cooperative Business Journal, and a former reporter for Inside Washington Publishers, where he covered federal...