Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his colleagues should welcome and encourage the Clean Power Plan issued this week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of the Barack Obama administration in Washington. Implementation of the plan will gradually improve the quality of North American air. It may open the way for international agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. It may eventually improve U.S. demand for Canadian uranium, natural gas and hydroelectric power.
The EPA plan invites state governments to produce plans for reducing carbon emissions from the 1,000 thermal plants that generate most of America's electric power. If a state refuses to make a plan, the EPA will write one. The net effect of all the resulting steps should be to reduce carbon emissions from those plants by 30 per cent by the year 2030. Different states can do this different ways, depending on their circumstances.
This measure is already hotly contested within the United States. Coal-mining companies, coal-burning power utilities and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are announcing economic disaster. Republicans in Congress and Democrats from coal-mining states oppose the plan.
The legal basis for the new rule is a little uncertain. The U.S. Clean Air Act empowers the president to regulate pollutants, and presidents have done so for 40 years. Carbon dioxide, a naturally occurring gas in the atmosphere, has not previously been treated as a pollutant in U.S. environmental law. Now that scientists have identified carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, the growing concentration of which in the atmosphere is changing the climate of Earth, it will be treated as a pollutant. The coal companies are already lining up their lawyers to say this is an unconstitutional abuse of presidential power.
Mr. Harper can steer clear of the angry domestic dispute about presidential powers. The heart of the matter is that the United States is moving at last to curtail a huge source of air pollution. The winds that blow American air into Canada can only improve as a result. The prospects of an international agreement curtailing greenhouse gas emissions have brightened already with the EPA announcement and will continue to brighten as the substance of the Clean Power Plan unfolds.
The EPA's plan talks of solar energy, wind turbines and biomass energy taking the place of coal, but these technologies are at the moment fringe contributors to U.S. energy supply, sustained only by rich subsidies and artificial pricing. The 30 per cent target may be met in part by replacing the oldest coal-fired plants with newer, cleaner ones. It seems likely, however, some power utilities will come looking for the uranium, natural gas and hydroelectric power Canada can supply.
Nuclear power plants have not been built in the U.S. for many years because of public fear of accidents and radiation -- though as a practical matter many more people die from breathing coal smoke than have ever died from nuclear accidents. The Clean Power Plan may have the effect of focusing attention once again on the relative merits of coal and uranium. If nuclear power turns out to be part of the solution, Canada can help.
Canadian industry has for years been resisting greenhouse gas emission controls on the grounds Canadian factories should not have to cover costs their U.S. competitors do not face. This logic will have to be reviewed now that U.S. industry will have to adjust to the Clean Power Plan. The economic catastrophe predicted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce may or may not come to pass, but Canadian industry should expect political pressure for clean air to be as strong in Canada as it is in the U.S.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the weekend reminded Canadians how vulnerable Alberta's oilsands operations are to international criticism. They are a huge source of fuel, but they are also a huge source of greenhouse gases. A Canadian plan to curtail greenhouse gas emissions will have to include some reasonable solution covering oilsands extraction.