As vice president of government relations for the big business lobby Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, Scott Manley's fun job is to convince us the new regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency will destroy our economy. Its requirement that coal emissions be cut by 34% by 2030 could be "devastating," he has warned, forcing Wisconsin to "commit an act of unilateral economic disarmament."
Sorry, Scott. Even using the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's figures on the impact of the EPA rules, the cost is equal to just one-fifth of one percent of the total American economy, as economist Paul Krugman has noted. Writing for UrbanMilwaukee.com, Bruce Thompson looked at the impact claimed by the WMC and found it is equal to two months of job growth for the five-state Midwest region. And these are the worst-case scenarios.
But even that small impact on jobs could be avoided if Wisconsin embraces proactive policies to reduce its reliance on coal. That includes:
- More energy conservation: It's the low-hanging fruit that can easily reduce carbon emissions by cutting energy use. There are millions of homes, businesses and nonprofits in the state that could save energy by installing insulation, fluorescent or LED lights, and more efficient heating systems and appliances. The state's Focus on Energy program pushes public utilities to provide incentives and assistance to encourage the adoption of conservation measures, and an independent analysis found that for every $1 invested in the program (for both conservation and alternative energy installations), homeowners and businesses save $2.89 in energy costs.
The state should be expanding the program, but instead the new Public Service Commission (PSC) appointed by Gov. Scott Walker has moved in the opposite direction.
- More alternative energy: Wisconsin's heavy reliance on coal is a drag on our economy; each year we send $12.5 billion out of state to meet our energy needs. Why not invest some of that money in alternative energy?
Wisconsin has already made progress on this front: In 2013, the PSC recently announced, utilities generated 10.7% of the state's power from renewable sources, up from 3.8% in 2006. But most of the increase was before Walker and the Republicans came to power. The Focus on Energy program also provides cash incentives to businesses and homeowners to adopt alternative energies like solar and wind technology. Democrats had passed legislation setting the annual funding for this at $160 million, steadily increasing to $256 million by 2014, but Walker and the Republicans slashed it to a flat $100 million. Meanwhile, Walker favored rules that have discouraged the installation of wind turbines.
As a result, the state's growth in wind power came to a screeching halt. Data from Wind on the Wires show that in 2012, Illinois added 823 megawatts of wind power, Iowa added 814, Michigan 611, Minnesota 267 and Indiana 203. Wisconsin's total? Zero.
As for solar power, according to Rex Gillespie, a former president of the Wisconsin Solar Energy Industries Association, work for solar contractors began to decline after the PSC slashed funding for solar power.
Yes, alternative energy is subsidized. As is the fossil fuel industry. But subsidies for alternative energy encourage the creation of in-state industries, while buying subsidized fossil fuels helps states like Wyoming and Texas.
- Create a cap and trade program: It's a free-market solution that was championed by Republicans to combat acid rain. Approved as an amendment to the Clean Air Act under President George H.W. Bush, it helped slash sulfur dioxide by 64%. Coal emissions could be handled similarly, whereby each company starts the year with credit for a certain amount of emissions allowed -- a so-called right to pollute -- and those that excel at reducing emissions can sell some of their pollution credits to companies that don't. Long-term, average emissions decline.
In 2009, nine eastern states -- Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont -- created a regional cap and trade plan to reduce carbon emissions. The result: These states reduced emissions by 18%, 4.5 times more than the other 41 states, while enjoying greater economic growth. To maximize the impact of cap and trade in Wisconsin, it might be better to adopt a similar regional plan including a state like Iowa, among the national leaders in creating wind power.
- Switch to natural gas: It's the only solution that seems acceptable to the state's Republican leaders, but given how much some utilities have invested in coal-fired plants, they are not excited about the high costs of converting to natural gas plants. By contrast, solutions like conservation, alternative energy and cap and trade are smaller-scaled, lower-cost projects that could have appeal for utilities -- not to mention businesses and homeowners across the state.
Of course, it takes leadership to make this happen, and Walker seems more concerned about protecting fossil fuel companies located outside Wisconsin. He signed the "No Climate Tax Pledge" promising to oppose using taxes to combat climate change. The pledge was devised by a group backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, whose companies, according to the EPA, emit over 24 million tons of carbon dioxide annually.
Which, of course, is harmful to Americans' health. Pollution from Wisconsin coal plants is estimated to contribute to 268 deaths, 201 hospital admissions and 456 heart attacks each year, not to mention significantly increasing the state's health care costs. Our right to breathe should be as important as a small difference in economic growth.
Bruce Murphy is the editor of UrbanMilwaukee.