EDITORIAL: Timing curious for EPA announcement

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Most responsible citizens don’t want to destroy their environment, but most people also don’t want to pay sharply higher utility bills or hurt their state’s economy when it is still recovering from the Great Recession.

Many people say the latter cases will be the trade-off that states that rely heavily on coal to produce electricity will face as a result of the Obama administration’s edict last week that existing power plants must reduce their carbon emissions 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

Of course those states include Indiana and Kentucky, and many officials in those states, including Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, have expressed outrage about the new rules.

The timing of the announcement by the Environmental Protection Agency is curious. Yes, technically it was the EPA that made the decision, but President Obama likely could have gotten the agency to hold off on it until at least after this year’s elections if he had requested that. And surely he realizes that this is not a politically popular decision in many states and could hurt his Democratic Party’s efforts to retain control of the Senate.

After taking office during the Great Recession, Obama proposed and saw enacted several bills that raised the U.S. budget deficit significantly because he said getting the economy back on track was more important than worrying about reducing the deficit at that time. Might that same logic now apply to keeping the economies of coal-producing states on track?

According to the EPA, in 2008 the United States produced 19 percent of earth’s carbon-dioxide emissions – China was the leader at 23 percent – so without agreement from other industrial nations to reduce such emissions, the EPA’s latest order may have little effect.

Then again, other factors could be leading to a reduction in coal-powered electric plants and carbon emissions anyway, and perhaps Obama and the EPA just want to take credit for a trend that was already underway.

Muhlenberg County is one of the main coal-producing areas in Kentucky, but Dylan Lovan of the Associated Press wrote last week that coal-fired generators at a power plant there are being replaced by one that runs on natural gas.

“The change in Muhlenberg County, once the nation’s top producer of coal, is emblematic of what’s been happening across the U.S. as natural gas becomes cheaper and electric utilities try to meet stiffer carbon emission rules,” wrote Lovan.

Billy Sabin, who is managing the transition to the natural-gas plant at the Paradise facility, told Lovan the plant would need about 130 fewer employees when the two coal-burning units shut down.

That being the case, it seems logical that the transition from coal-burning plants to natural gas ones would occur soon even without the new EPA regulations, as most companies in any field today are trying to cut costs by reducing staff.

But staff reductions at the plants and in coal mines could lead to unemployment figures spiking to unacceptable levels again. Sabin told Lovan the Paradise plant would work to find displaced workers jobs at other sites, but if other plants are also reducing staffs, that would seem hard to do.

Though natural gas has gotten cheaper in recent years, business groups have warned of skyrocketing utility bills, which could also lead to more manufacturing job losses to overseas.

However “environmental groups claim electric bills will drop and new green-energy jobs will flourish,” according to USA Today, though that paper also wrote, “It’s reasonable to conclude that the new rules will cause electric rates to rise ... in coal-dependent states such as Kentucky, Wyoming, West Virginia, Indiana and North Dakota.”

Most people knowledgeable about the environment agree that carbon emissions need to be reduced eventually. But because of the at-least short-term negative effects on the economy that the new EPA regulations will cause, we feel it would have been prudent for the EPA to wait another year – until the economy is more fully recovered – to announce those regulations.

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