Truth or consequences in energy policy, part II
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This is the second installment in a three-part series. Part I is available here and part III is available here.

The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Clean Power Plan (CPP) is the next in this three-part "Truth or Consequences" series. Can we afford to stop it? Adopt it? Is it meaningful?

In the previous column, we addressed clean coal technology and Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (CCUS) as a critical pathway to meeting climate and energy security goals. The conclusion is that technology — not flawed policy — is the only way to ensure that success. That leads us to the EPA's CPP and this column.


The CPP was originally introduced in August 2015 by the EPA and the president and was called "historic" in terms of reducing carbon pollution from power plants. The Supreme Court recently stayed the implementation pending further judicial review. President Obama recently told Democratic supporters to not "despair" over the Supreme Court ruling to stay the CPP, as he saw "strong legal footing." He said that "the centerpiece of our climate plan involves ... reducing [states'] carbon emissions." 

The stay also surprised and delighted many Republicans and encouraged pushback on regulations and specifically the implementation of the plan.

What's the truth here and what are the consequences? A stay is nothing more than a delay. Delay begets uncertainty, introduces risk, provides more time to argue, spend money on legal wrangling and accomplishes nothing! Nothing accomplished in terms of carbon dioxide emissions reductions and nothing in terms of further development of a secure and affordable energy future in our country or progress toward providing global leadership. That is the truth and the consequences.

Why is it so hard? Because we have not invested in the technology to actually reduce emissions from the largest segment of global power production and energy: fossil fuels. We have not invested because many Democrats want nothing more than to kill coal and fossil energy. We have not invested because many Republicans deny carbon dioxide implications to global climate change. Both positions have consequences and they are both uninformed.

Let's look again at this centerpiece proposed legislation, the CPP. What does it do and more importantly, not do? If we use the reasonable test to measure relevance and impact for change, what is the truth? Resulting carbon dioxide reductions will amount to a net reduction of 0.2 percent of global carbon dioxide. Yes, there is a decimal point in front of the two; it is not a misprint. This also results in a .01 degree Fahrenheit impact to climate and a net reduction in seawater rise the thickness of a dime. Relevant? Impactful? No, and surely not ambitious. It amounts to three weeks of emissions in China. Three weeks, the "centerpiece" of our climate strategy! My view is that this is much ado about nothing. Why are educated people so invested in arguing about something that does nothing but create economic pain in the U.S. for no global climate gain?

Because some wish to shut down coal in the U.S. The CPP enables natural gas (also a carbon dioxide emitter, albeit at half the impact as coal) to be broadly installed with no capture of carbon dioxide emissions. It also mandates wind deployment far beyond any rational public utilities commission planning in terms of reliability and affordability — and does it under the guise of climate legislation. Yet it's not impactful climate legislation! Starting to make sense to you? Because it doesn't to me.

And while many on the other side of the aisle may find joy in the above comments, it is inconceivable that we can spend one more day denying climate change, fighting for the right to burn coal and natural gas without carbon dioxide controls and doing it in the name of energy sustainability. You can't have energy sustainability without accessible and affordable energy and yet you surely cannot ignore environmental responsibility. Without all three components, it is a house of cards that is not sustainable for our future. Delays, stays and arguing about the next Supreme Court justice: Our eye is off the ball, and time is ticking.

There are consequences, so what can be done? Simple: Invest in technology and deploy it globally to enable fossil fuels to be environmentally responsible. Let's also invest in transformative technologies in wind, solar, nuclear and geothermal. We need all of the above. The stated position of this administration is to support all forms of energy, but it is only pretend. We need a genuine "all of the above" strategy.

As I stated in an earlier column, in my two years as assistant secretary of Energy, the administration put forth budgets that reduced fossil fuel technology investments 40 percent per year two years in a row. This most recent administration request to de-obligate $240 million of already obligated funds for advanced clean coal technology is simply acting on a strategy — and let's be real, it's not "all of the above." This is a perfect opportunity to put our money where our mouth is!

There are two truths. The first is that we cannot continue to use fossil energy (coal or gas) without carbon dioxide advanced technology. The second is that we can't simply stop using fossil fuels. It's magical thinking to pursue only renewables over the next 50 years.

I believe it is reprehensible to misinform the American public that the CPP is climate legislation. It is not. It is a forced renewable portfolio standard that goes well beyond EPA legal precedent. And the most disturbing fact is that all of the data sited in this column comes from information the EPA is fully aware of — it's their data. Let's answer real questions about electricity cost and reliability and stop fabricating stories about green jobs creation and saving the world. The consequences are that the public may be convinced that passing such legislation will actually impact the climate, and it won't.

People will continue to use more energy as we add computers, cellphones, cell towers, servers, etc. All these devices continue to increase energy demand as we become more technologically advanced — and yet we sit in our idling autos, texting in line at the drive-through, believing we are environmentally responsible and concerned?

We need advanced clean coal and fossil technology to capture carbon dioxide before it is emitted. We must use the carbon dioxide for its chemical and physical values in enhanced oil recovery and chemicals production, and then safely and permanently store it.

The truth is that carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) can benefit the climate and our energy security, improve affordability of energy and, most important, can be the single biggest global technology leadership the U.S. can provide to the rest of the world as coal- and gas-fired generation is rapidly deployed to improve living standards.

The consequences of not rapidly deploying CCUS are devastating. The International Energy Agency states there is no way for us to globally reach our envisioned targets without it. Using the carbon dioxide provides a productivity and energy-security gain. CCUS is what both sides of the aisle must understand, support and invest in. Pledges and speeches do not equal real investment, and poor policies such as the CPP cannot be considered progress. The issue is critical and real, today, and demands real solutions.

Buying carbon credits and offsets and relying on disingenuous policies such as the CPP are no substitutes for technology. Let's not delude ourselves with feel-good illusions. 

My next column will be about the real needs and the real solutions of energy sustainability and where and how we can invest in all of the forms of clean, accessible energy that Bill Gates speaks of.

McConnell is executive director of the Energy and Environment Initiative at Rice University and a former assistant secretary of energy at the Department of Energy from 2011 to 2013.