What's actually driving opponents of the Clean Power Plan?

Keith Gaby

The Washington Post reports that Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has already organized a boycott of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, even before it’s released. Never mind the fact that Kentucky state officials expect to meet the plan’s requirements to cut pollution from power plants “with relatively little effort.”

In fact, the newspaper’s analysis reveals that most states won’t have trouble meeting the plan’s targets. So, if Sen. McConnell and others are not really standing up for their home states, what’s actually behind the opposition to the Clean Power Plan?

The motives vary, but most opponents of the Clean Power Plan seem united in their belief that solving climate change is either unnecessary or should be very low on the list of national priorities. That’s the only real explanation for their immediate rejection of the only currently available mechanism for limiting climate pollution from its largest source – under a plan that’s flexible, achievable and affordable.

Drivers of the opposition can be broken down into three familiar categories: money, partisanship and ideology.

The financial interests of the highest-polluting electric utilities are a key element of the opposition. While some forward-thinking companies are switching to cleaner energy, big players in the industry are refusing to adapt.

They’d apparently rather spend money on lobbyists than on planning to thrive in a clean energy future. So they are pressuring Congress to block the rules, and sowing fear among their economically vulnerable constituents. (Of course, analysis shows the Clean Power Plan will, in fact, lower electric bills in the long term.)

As with most things in Washington, partisanship is playing a very big role in the opposition to the Clean Power Plan. Because President Obama proposed it, it must be wrong.

And with a loud minority of voters who oppose anything the president does – and anything that acknowledges the need to address climate change – some in Congress see no downside to opposing the EPA, regardless of the details or merits of the plan.

Drivers of the opposition can be broken down into three familiar categories: money, partisanship and ideology.

Finally, there are those who have ideological objections to almost any new federal rules, disturbing the market, or taking action on climate change at all. Ideological positions are often principled, but they can also be wrong.

  • Federal action – and, ultimately, international action – is absolutely essential to fix a problem that is global in both cause and effect. Local or voluntary effort simply can’t do the job.
  • The market is a powerful engine of prosperity, but when it fails – by letting companies pollute for free while taxpayers pay for the damage – it requires sensible adjustment.
  • For those who sincerely believe climate change is neither real nor a threat, I refer you to NASA, all major American scientific organizations, and an avalanche of data to the contrary.

Some opponents fall outside those categories, but they are few in number.

For instance, some believe the federal Clean Air Act is the wrong mechanism for solving this problem. But given that the Supreme Court has ruled the EPA is required by the this law to limit climate pollution, and that Congress has failed for decades to tackle the problem, those opponents have an obligation to explain how they would make the same progress in other ways.

The fact is, the Clean Power Plan is a major turning point in the effort to solve climate change and a significant move toward clean energy so some people will fight furiously to stop it, just like they’ve fought most other major environmental policies in recent decades.

Their interests and ideology remain fixed in a world of polluting energy. Fortunately, for our children and grandchildren, the rest of us are moving forward.