What Will the Clean Power Plan Mean for Low-Income People in America?

Not long after I launched this blog, a very different House of Representatives passed an ambitious bill to cut greenhouse gas emissions — mainly carbon dioxide — that contribute to global warming, a.k.a. climate change.

The bill died in the Senate. And subsequent party power shifts meant that a new bill wouldn’t stand the chance of an iceberg in our warming Arctic seas.

So here we are six years later with a Clean Power Plan from the Environmental Protection Agency — a different approach to the same problem.

Basically, the rule sets state-level carbon emission reduction targets for power plants, but lets states figure out how to meet them — individually or by banding together in regional solutions.

Coal producers, some power companies and their associations saw the handwriting on the wall. So we’ve got a plethora of doomsday scenarios, predictably focused on harms to low and moderate-income Americans.

And we’ve got quite different scenarios from EPA, nonprofits engaged in environmental issues, health research professionals and other experts.

Truth of the matter is we don’t know how the initiatives to reduce carbon pollution will play out. And we won’t for some considerable time because states don’t have to begin meeting their goals until 2022.

We do, however, have a pretty clear view of the top-line issues in a debate that’s likely to continue as states go to the drafting board — or don’t, if they heed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s advice.

Job Losses … or Gains

Opponents of the rule allege massive job losses. The far-right Heritage Foundation has predicted a peak loss of a million, leveling out to 300,000 a year by 2030.

The National Black Chamber of Commerce puts job losses for blacks and Hispanics alone at about 29 million. Significantly higher poverty rates for both, it says, implying that many won’t find other decent-paying work.

Well, the coal production industry has been shedding jobs for years, as electrical power companies switch to natural gas and other energy sources.

By 2013, more people worked for solar energy companies than there were coal miners — not an apples-to-apples comparison, but indicative of where things are heading.

And it confirms what common sense tells us. Conversion to cleaner energy sources creates jobs. EPA’s own analysis indicates more job gains than losses. Several more comprehensive (and equally opaque) studies find larger net gains. One predicts 273,000 more jobs by 2040.

Home Energy Costs

Opponents warn that home energy prices will rise. An analysis for the energy arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce concluded that consumers will pay $280 billion more for electricity by 2030.

A study of the plan’s impacts, commissioned by fossil fuel company associations, among others, predicts a 13-15% increase in the rates homeowners and renters will be charged — a total of at least $210 billion a year, on average, between the time the plan kicks in and 2032.

EPA also projects price increases, but only modest — in the mid-2% range — and only until 2020. Prices will then begin to drop, such that, by 2030, the average American family will save $7 a month on electricity. This, the White House says, translates into total consumer savings of $155 billion over 10 years.

These estimates assume both less energy waste and greater efficiency. The former could presumably include further funding for “weatherization” programs, i.e., no-cost or low-cost home audits and upgrades like new furnaces and better insulation.

State and local governments have other waste-reducing options. For example, the National Association of State Energy Officials recommends revised building energy codes — and adoption of such codes in states that don’t have them.

The Environmental Defense Fund looks to smart technologies that turn appliances off when energy use rises and to rates that vary according to how much electricity a utility company’s customers use — or are expected to. Both already exist, but the Clean Power Plan increases incentives.

For greater efficiency, we can look, of course, to manufacturers of appliances and other electronics — and to consumers who do (or don’t) factor efficiency into their choices.

It nevertheless seems true that households will generally face higher electricity bills for awhile. These, in fact, are an undocumented feature of sorts, since they give people an incentive to curb their electricity use — in part, by simply changing everyday practices.

The cost increases could still disproportionately affect low-income households, since they spend a considerably larger share of their income for home energy. But the hit to their budgets isn’t inevitable.

I’ve already mentioned weatherization. There are also other strategies. Legislators and regulators may establish rate structures that protect low-income households from price increases. Governments at all levels can fund programs that deliver energy-saving tips and advice to these households.

And futile as it seems to mention it, Congress could significantly increase funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program — a dwindling source of help with utility bills.

Health and Safety

The Institute for Energy Research, which seems to have some remarkably creative staffers, contends that the Clean Power Plan will cause 14,000 more premature deaths by 2030 because low-income families will have to forgo necessities, e.g., food, medical care, to pay their energy bills.

As I’ve already said, the cost increases may be temporary and mitigated in various ways. More importantly, we’ve every reason to believe that reducing carbon pollution will save lives — especially those of low-income people.

A recently-published study by independent experts suggests that the Plan could prevent as many as 3,500 premature deaths a year — mainly from respiratory diseases caused or aggravated by emissions from coal-burning power plants.

EPA estimates somewhere between 2,700 and 5,660 premature deaths averted. It also cites 140,000-150,000 fewer asthma attacks among children.

Now, none of these estimates singles out low-income people. But we can readily draw some connections.

Where, for example, are those smoke-spewing power plants located? And who’s most likely to live next to a highway or bus depot that exposes them to air-polluting auto emissions — a well-documented trigger for lung and heart diseases?

Finally, we shouldn’t forget warnings of what will happen if global warming continues unchecked — more “extreme precipitation and flooding,” in EPA’s words. We can look to Hurricane Katrina to predict who would suffer most.

Folks who could get out of the storm’s path did. Folks without cars and the wherewithal to pay for gas and a hotel room often didn’t. Even if authorities have more effective evacuation plans, folks short on resources — especially the elderly, it seems — are likely to die from the stress.

All the hard numbers I’ve cited — and others I haven’t — are obviously iffy. Much depends on what states will do. What individuals and families do also. This isn’t a reason, I think, to question the value of a plan that will cut carbon pollution, assuming the next President doesn’t kill it.


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