The EPA's climate plan envisions a less carbon-intense power sector across the U.S. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
The EPA's climate plan envisions a less carbon-intense power sector across the U.S. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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By Gabe Rivin

The federal government’s newest climate change policy has brought cheers from national health advocates, who say it will curb harmful air pollutants, in addition to greenhouse gases.

But while North Carolina’s advocates echo these claims, researchers, policy experts and government agencies have disagreed about what, if any, health benefits the climate policy may offer North Carolinians. The rule itself may accomplish little, some say, given North Carolina’s own air pollution rules and clean-energy standards.

The EPA’s climate plan envisions a less carbon-intense power sector across the U.S. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

And in state officials’ worst-case scenario, a successful legal challenge to the plan would result in state officials abandoning their time-consuming work on the plan, a possibility if North Carolina’s environment department wins a planned lawsuit against the federal government.

At issue is the Clean Power Plan, a wide-reaching rule issued Aug. 3 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The rule aims to reduce total greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. power plants 32 percent by 2030 compared to their emissions in 2005. States have individual targets for reducing emissions, but how they reach those targets is largely up to them.

Though the Clean Power Plan targets climate change, the rule also aims to reduce several other air pollutants, according to the EPA. By turning away from carbon-heavy energy sources like coal, the U.S. will also reduce other kinds of air pollution, such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, EPA officials say.

If that’s the case, the Clean Power Plan could be significant for North Carolinians’ health. The state’s air quality has improved in recent years, with the entire state now meeting the EPA’s current air-quality standards. Still, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides can pose a threat to residents’ health.

In the atmosphere, sulfur dioxide can form small particles, which when breathed at ground level can penetrate humans’ lungs. This can then cause or exacerbate some respiratory diseases, such as emphysema and bronchitis, and worsen heart disease.

“We have a pretty good understanding that fine particles do affect human health,” said Jason West, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who studies air pollution and climate change.

Nitrogen oxides are also potentially harmful pollutants; they can react with other compounds and produce smog, also damaging to human respiratory systems.

West said the power sector’s air pollution can be deadly.

“Those deaths are mainly due to cardiopulmonary causes, including things like heart attacks and strokes, but also including lung cancer,” he said

A climate change policy then would seem to have the extra benefit of improving air quality on a local level. That facet of health science hasn’t been hotly debated in North Carolina.

The disagreements have instead revolved around a question of public policy: Will the EPA’s final rule actually accomplish its goals in North Carolina?

Limited studies

One of the few available answers comes from Charles Driscoll, a researcher at Syracuse University.

Marshall Steam Station, a coal-fired power plant in Catawba County. The EPA’s climate plan could force the closure of coal plants across the U.S. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In a study published in May, Driscoll and other researchers predicted that a climate policy like the EPA’s could have significant benefits for North Carolina. By 2020, between 30 and 240 North Carolinians every year would avoid a premature death caused by air pollution, they predicted. Between 19 and 56 residents, they also calculated, would avoid hospitalizations.

Driscoll admitted the model is limited, since it’s not based on the EPA’s exact rules. The study, for instance, considers a climate policy’s effects in 2020, while the EPA’s rule requires states to lower their carbon footprint by 2030.

Those differing timelines could matter.

“I think that the energy landscape is changing very, very fast,” Driscoll said.

He also said that the model didn’t consider the Clean Power Plan’s specific requirements for North Carolina, but instead took a more national approach to its estimates.

Another answer could come from the EPA. With the Clean Power Plan, by 2030 North Carolina’s annual nitrogen oxide emissions are projected to drop 12,900 tons compared to a scenario without the climate policy, an EPA spokeswoman said. Sulfur dioxide emissions are projected to be 9,900 tons lower.

But while the EPA calculated the final climate policy’s health benefits on a national level, it didn’t calculate the benefits state by state.

The spokeswoman said that’s because health must be considered within the context of regional air pollution.

“Air pollution that impacts the health of NC residents, such as soot and smog and their precursors, can travel hundreds of miles and cross state boarders,” she said in an email. Improvements in air pollution, she added, “are influenced by emission reductions not only within North Carolina, but also in states that are upwind of North Carolina.”

Worrying about waste

State environment officials take issue with these analyses.

“North Carolina is already enjoying most of the health benefits from this rule because its [nitrogen oxides] and [sulfur dioxide] emission rates are nearing final targets,” said Crystal Feldman, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Feldman said that in 2014, Duke Energy’s nitrogen oxide emissions were down 93 percent compared to their levels in 1998. Sulfur dioxide emissions were down 86 percent, she said.

DENR has staunchly opposed the EPA’s rule. Department officials cite 2002’s Clean Smokestacks Act and the state’s renewable-energy industry, which they say have improved air quality and put the state on track to meet the EPA’s targets.

“North Carolina is on-track to achieve President Obama’s stated goal of a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030 from a 2005 baseline date without federal intrusion and will achieve this goal while keeping energy costs low,” DENR Sec. Donald van der Vaart said in a statement.

A former DENR official echoed this claim. Robin Smith, who served as DENR’s assistant secretary for the environment from 1999 to 2012, said in a blog post that “existing state policies have North Carolina on a path to achieve much (if not all) of the necessary reductions through increased renewable energy generation, greater energy efficiency, and transition of power plants from coal to natural gas.”

The McCrory administration is also concerned that the Clean Power Plan could waste state funds. Under the plan, states must develop their own plans to meet the EPA’s targets. But developing statewide air plans, and implementing those plans, can take anywhere from months to years, van der Vaart told a U.S. House committee in March.

At the same time, the Clean Power Plan faces legal challenges – including from DENR – and if the rule is judged to be illegal North Carolina will have wasted time and money on a defunct rule, van der Vaart warned.

Looming legal questions

The state may opt to wait and see what happens. Under a bill passed by the state Senate, state agencies would not be allowed to develop a comprehensive state plan, essentially defying the Clean Power Plan.

Donald van der Vaart, DENR’s secretary, has warned that North Carolina stands to waste state funds if the Clean Power Plan is shot down in court. Photo courtesy DENR

The Clean Power Plan requires each state to submit an initial plan by 2016. But if a state fails to deliver a final plan by a 2018 deadline, the EPA can implement its own plan throughout a state.

Of course, these deadlines could be nullified if the Clean Power Plan is struck down in court.

The fate of HB 571, the Senate’s bill, remains uncertain. The bill originated in the House, and in its original form it had the opposite function, requiring DENR to develop a plan that would comply with the EPA’s rules. The House approved the bill with a broad bipartisan majority.

The Senate passed its version of the bill on Aug. 5. The bill then returned to the House, where it was referred to the chamber’s rules committee, a holding place for legislation that often sees no additional action.

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