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June 2, 2014
Editorial: Obama's effort to reduce coal is groundbreaking, but not in California

Lodi_power_plant.JPG(June 2 - By the Editorial Board)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations proposed Monday by the Obama administration will have a familiar ring to Californians, though they're groundbreaking nationally.

Aimed at slashing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, the new rules - like the EPA's recent California-based fuel economy standards - have the larger mission of curbing greenhouse gases.

Like programs that have been in place here since 2012, they encourage participation in cap-and-trade markets.

And, like California's initiatives, they're serious about making a difference. The burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity is one of the largest single contributors to global warming, and the proposed rules would cut power plant emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels in 15 years.

Nonetheless, the blowback has begun, with threats of lawsuits and congressional intervention. Particularly incensed are friends of the coal industry, which, as usual, claims that any effort to make it clean up its act will kill jobs and burden families.

The critics should calm down. For one thing, the proposed rules are flexible, offering a range of ways to get to the target. For another, the nation already is halfway to the proposed target, thanks to the recent recession and a move to cheaper and cleaner natural gas at many power plants.

Arguments about jobs and burdened families also are specious.

Yes, coal jobs may be lost. Coal-based electricity has been steadily declining in California, though a few utilities - Los Angeles' in particular - still rely heavily on coal-fired plants.

The Modesto Irrigation District, for instance, gets only 15 percent of its energy portfolio from imported coal power. A spokesman for SMUD said it has no contracts for coal-based electricity. At PG&E, coal-fired electricity makes up a mere thirteenth of 1 percent of retail sales.

But anyone who has checked in on the natural gas boom in Kern County knows that, whatever fuels the nation's power plants, energy employment in general isn't going anywhere. Nor will coal disappear.

About 39 percent of the nation's electricity comes from coal-fired plants now, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The new rules would probably drive coal down to about 30 percent, still a significant amount.

As for families, there are burdens and then there are burdens. Adjusted for inflation, residential electricity rates are at a historic low in this country. And clean air is priceless if you are among the 6.8 million American families with an asthmatic child.

Even so, cleaner power plants don't need to translate into higher electric bills for households. Among other things, the EPA wants to give utilities a financial incentive to decrease energy usage by "decoupling" revenue from sales volume - another idea that was pioneered by California.

Here, utilities long have been able to profit even if people and businesses use less power. As a result, though the state has grown dramatically and energy use has soared in the rest of the country, per capita consumption in California has remained flat for 30 years.

State authorities say the rules, as proposed, should pose little difficulty for California, which has essentially outsourced its coal-fired electricity to plants in other states.

But if they survive the yearlong comment period and the wrath of critics, the rules will have this local impact: California will finally have some meaningful company in the quest to do something about coal-fired climate change.