WisBusiness: Emerging EPA climate change rules could hit coal-dependent Midwest hard

By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

Emerging EPA greenhouse gas regulations likely will survive and will raise utility rates in Wisconsin, three panelists agreed Thursday.

The trio spoke at a “Future of Midwest Energy” luncheon organized by WisBusiness.com and WisPolitics.com.

They disagreed on other possible effects of the rules, however.

Dan Chartier, a former EPA official who now works for the Edison Electric Institute, said the timeline for a series of regulations coming over the next few years could produce a “train wreck” for utilities.

“We aren’t opposed to these rules, but we need a rational schedule,” he said, arguing that the compression of deadlines is giving his industry fits.

“We know there will be shut-downs because of this,” he said, estimating that a quarter of the country’s coal-fired power plants may be at risk. “But we want to make sure there are no short-term reliability problems.”

Keith Reopelle, senior policy director for the Clean Wisconsin environmental group, said he believes the federal Clean Air Act gives states flexibility. And he praised states in the Northeast and California for adopting cap-and-trade programs to limit greenhouse gases.

In addition, he said the rules will stimulate green energy business growth and have the support of major corporations such as Dow Chemical and Chrysler Motors.

And he sharply criticized Republicans in the House whom he said are trying to discredit the science behind climate change.

“It’s a blatant case of politics trying to undo science and it’s absurd,” he said.

George Meyer, former DNR secretary and now executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said his group – consisting of 160 hunting and fishing groups — overwhelmingly supports the EPA crackdown on greenhouse gas pollutants because they’ve already seen the negative effects of climate change.

A fourth scheduled panelist, GOP Rep. Mark Honadel, chair of the Assembly Energy Committee, was unable to attend because of the surprise Assembly session on collective bargaining rights.

“We really must look at how the EPA regulations are going to hurt our economy,” Honadel. R-South Milwaukee, said in a statement.

“The costs of regulations are simply unknown at this time, and we do not know how our economy will be affected by these unknowns. There are some of us who believe that it is the current administration’s plan to direct our economy through environmental policy at the EPA level.”

Chartier, who worked for Wisconsin Electric Power Co. earlier in his career, said uncertainty surrounding the EPA rules is making some rethink plans to retrofit coal-fired plants that may no longer be profitable to run.

He said state agencies that will be affected by the rules, such as Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission, need to consider their effects on manufacturers and other businesses.

And he said the Midwest may be especially vulnerable to negative effects from the rules because this region gets more than 70 percent of its power from coal-fired plants. The West Coast states of Washington, Oregon and California, however, only generate 4 percent of their power from coal plants.

If rates go up too much in the Midwest, he said jobs could “migrate” to other states or abroad.

Chartier said he hopes technological breakthroughs – and greater use of nuclear power – will lesson greenhouse gas pollution in this country.

Meyer agreed with Chartier that it may be expensive to implement the greenhouse gas rules.

“But you pay now or pay later,” said Meyer, who criticized legislators for putting up barriers to renewable energy sources such as wind turbines. “And it’s a false choice to separate the environment from the economy.”

Meyer also said he breaks ranks with other conservationists because he backs expansion of nuclear energy in the state and believes it’s a clean source of power.