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An environmental experiment

Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled the latest Obama administration plan to cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from existing power plants, especially coal burners, the country's single largest source of the heat-trapping gas.

The new program bypasses Congress and uses the president's authority under the Clean Air Act to achieve greenhouse gas reductions. It will raise threats of lawsuits, claims of job losses and higher energy prices, and references to the recent pause in global temperatures dating from the beginning of the 21st century. The Obama program on climate change stresses extreme weather events as a primary motive for action on climate. Such events include storms with "heavy downpours as well as an increase in wildfires, severe droughts, permafrost thawing, ocean acidification, and sea-level rise."

The EPA directives will apparently allow states to set up their own systems to achieve mandated cuts in CO2 emissions, including setting an overall "carbon budget" for states and leaving it up to them to meet the limits.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the rules will give states "flexibility to develop plans on how to achieve those reductions in a way that's economically beneficial to them." The rules will let states "establish their own energy policies as long as the carbon pollution reductions that we are going to require in this rule actually are achieved," she said.

Cap and trade

The new EPA rules will apparently give rise to cap and trade plans where emitting facilities will receive and buy tradable credits to allow a certain amount of CO2 emissions. Facilities which can lower emissions will have extra credits which they can sell to others who need them to continue operating.

This type of plan worked well in controlling the occurrence of acid rain from high levels of sulfur dioxide (SO2) being emitted from coal burning electric plants across the Midwest. Beginning in 2000 the sources were capped at 9.5 million tons of SO2 (compared to 1980 emission levels of 17.3 million tons), and the plants were held responsible for lowering their levels to those standards. The EPA issued each plant a certain number of credits, or allowances with each equal to one ton of SO2 emissions. At the end of every year, a plant would have to report to the EPA whether or not they had enough credits for their emissions, (i.e. a plant that emitted 1,000 tons of SO2 would need to hold 1,000 credits). Those under the cap could save their excess credits for the future, or sell them to other plants that were in danger of going over their limit.

If a plant went over its limit and was unable to purchase or trade for other credits, it would have to pay a fine to the EPA for each additional ton of SO2 emitted into the atmosphere. The acid rain program has been successful in lowering annual SO2 emissions.

The current 21st century pause in global surface warming has given ammunition to skeptics who will oppose the EPA rules as not necessary. But climate scientist John Abraham of St. Thomas University explains the reason for the current global warming pause. Much of the missing heat is being absorbed by the oceans, he notes, so that the earth overall is still warming. Warmer oceans will warm us in the future much as the periodic El Nino induced warmer Pacific surface causes a warmer earth. Abraham summed up the issues in a recent letter, "What we are concerned about is that temperature increases, ocean acidification, a rise in sea levels, and more droughts and floods will come at tremendous human costs."

I suggest that we humans are engaged in a great environmental experiment as we burn millions of years worth of stored hydrocarbon fuels, releasing CO2 to the atmosphere from which it came at a thousand of times nature's carbon storage rate. The risks from this are uncertain, but given the points raised by Abraham, they are not worth taking. I would feel better if I heard more about measures like using new, safer nuclear plants, such as the Westinghouse AP 1000. A nuclear plant like that produces 8 billion around-the-clock kilowatt hours per year, without emitting any carbon dioxide.

Four of those plants are under construction in Georgia and South Carolina and many more in China. We also need many more.

Rolf WESTGARD is a professional member of the Geological Society of America,and he is a guest faculty member on energy subjects for the University of Minnesota's Lifelong Learning program. His new fall quarter class is No. 17041 Coal Burning and the New EPA Rules.