For two weeks in Paris, negotiators from more than 190 countries worked toward the historic agreement announced Saturday on commitments to lower greenhouse gases that scientists say are warming the planet and causing climate changes around the globe.
In few places in the U.S. is this debate more relevant than in Ohio, which ranks fifth nationally in carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels, and where two-thirds of the electricity we consume comes from coal.
That means big changes — and potentially huge costs — could be in store for coal-dependent states like Ohio as a result of the climate-change benchmarks agreed to in Paris.
The state already faces a 2022 federal deadline to start cutting power plant carbon dioxide emissions under the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which Ohio is challenging in federal court along with 26 other states. The federal mandate calls for increased use of renewable energy like solar and wind, and shifts away from coal and toward lower-carbon natural gas.
For Ohio, that means a 37 percent reduction in the rate of power plant carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, according to rules finalized in October by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“The day of reckoning is coming,” said Jack Shaner, deputy director of the Ohio Environmental Council. “Ohio has traditionally had to be drug kicking and screaming to comply with federal clean air standards. That has taken a toll on our health, on our environment and even on our economy.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the new rules will help fight global warming, leading to $20 million in annual climate benefits by 2030. Cutting carbon dioxide emissions would reduce the amount of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions, the EPA says, generating up to $34 billion in annual health benefits, including fewer deaths, heart attacks and asthma attacks.
Supporters believe the new rules will cause electric bills to decline because renewable energy will become less expensive than non-renewables like coal, and because energy efficiency measures will become widespread. They also say the rules will create new jobs in advanced energy industries.
“The reality is there is a worldwide march toward clean energy, the urgency of which is justified by science, by public health and by new economic opportunities,” Shaner said.
But some Ohio officials and other critics say the new carbon dioxide rules will raise electric bills, put people out of work and put the electric grid at risk. Coal and other energy companies and some utilities also oppose the rules.
“Our members are concerned that the Clean Power Plan will drive up costs for consumers directly and indirectly,” said Charles Willoughby, director of energy and environmental policy at the Ohio Chamber of Commerce.
Dayton Power and Light Co. spokeswoman Mary Ann Kabel called the target goals “aggressive” and said, “Ohio is further challenged by lacking strong natural resources for wind and solar renewable energy.”
Craig Butler, director of the Ohio EPA, in September told a U.S. House subcommittee that “requiring additional pollution control measures will be extremely costly and will undermine the long-term viability of these power plants.”
Butler said the new rules should be halted, citing irreversible “damage” already done by the federal Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which he said led to a loss in power plant generating capacity.
The mercury and toxic emissions limits were remanded to an appeals court after the U.S. Supreme Court in June said the U.S. EPA had not conducted an initial cost-benefit analysis. The standards were not struck down, but the EPA will need to revise them.
Asked if Butler saw any any environmental or health benefits to the Clean Power Act, Butler’s spokeswoman Heidi Griesmer said, “Carbon dioxide emissions regulated by this rule are not a direct health threat to Ohioans.”
She said the Clean Power Plan would “tangentially” reduce other regulated pollutants — meaning nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide — and so “could have additional health benefits” but said it was inappropriate to limit those emissions using carbon mandates.
Griesmer said the state will ask for a two-year extension on compliance but is working on the initial plan submission that is required by next September.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich wants the new rules scrapped.
“My view is human activity does influence the climate, but to what degree we don’t know,” Kasich said during a Dec. 1 presidential campaign appearance in Tennessee. “The Administration has imposed some rules that are going to throw, potentially throw, a lot of people out of work in Ohio.”
Supporters of the stronger environmental rules say opponents are driven by a shortsighted desire to protect corporate interests — utility, coal, oil and natural gas companies — at the expense of everyone else.
“We’ve seen over the last few years there has been a political attack on renewable energy and energy efficiency in Ohio,” said Gabe Elsner, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, a Washington-based clean energy think tank.
“It’s been driven by organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council and legislators like (State Sen.) Bill Seitz and special interests that have a financial incentive to eliminate competition from the renewable energy industry.”
Ohio lags about half the states in bringing renewable and clean energy projects online, and last year legislators froze renewable energy and energy efficiency mandates that boosted the advanced energy industry.
The mandates were approved in 2008 and required that by 2025 utilities would get 12.5 percent of their electricity from renewable resources, half of which had to come from Ohio sources. They also required utilities to assist customers in reducing energy usage by 22 percent.
“It is clear to me that Ohio would be much better equipped to meet federal mandates to reduce our carbon footprint if we were to recommit to Ohio’s renewable portfolio standards and energy efficiency benchmarks,” said Ohio House Minority Leader Fred Strahorn, D-Dayton.
Last year a coalition of businesses, prominently Honda, along with the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association, urged that the mandates be kept because they had saved companies money. The state’s major environmental groups told Kasich that the mandates were a “boon” to the economy, necessary to keep electric bills low and would help Ohio meet federal mandates.
Despite that, the legislature passed and Kasich signed a bill that froze the mandates for two years and eliminated the Ohio-sourcing rule.
In September a Republican-dominated Energy Mandates Study Committee recommended that the freeze be kept in place indefinitely.
“Until we know whether the Clean Power Plan is legal we would be foolish to continue our march up state mandate mountain,” said Seitz, R-Green Twp., chairman of the Senate Public Utilities Committee. He also sat on the study committee.
“I want to weigh the cost of expedited compliance of this Clean Power Plan against the scant benefits. At most this will have a trifling effect on worldwide temperatures.”
Kasich opposes extending the freeze and advocates an “all sources” energy policy that relies on gas, oil, nuclear, coal, renewables and alternatives, along with conservation measures.
Ohio was the first state to roll back renewable energy mandates. In January, West Virginia became the first state to repeal its standard. Currently, 37 states and Washington, D.C., have renewable portfolio standards or goals, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The debate over whether renewable energy mandates help or hurt the economy is as polarized as the larger debate over power plant regulations. Different sets of numbers and assumptions and competing agendas create a flurry of cost/benefit claims.
On top of that is the volatility of the energy market, including plunging natural gas prices in the years since hydraulic fracturing opened a new supply of natural gas.
In Ohio the average monthly standard gas bill declined dramatically for all types of users from 2008 to 2015, according to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. But electric bills went up 23 percent for residential users, less for commercial users and declined slightly for industrial users.
The cost models are so complex “it’s entirely reasonable to have a healthy amount of skepticism,” said Joe Nichols, an energy fellow at the Buckeye Institute, a Columbus-based conservative think tank.
One thing is clear: Ohio has already reduced its carbon footprint, according to the U.S. EPA.
Total carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion declined 5.6 percent between 1990 and 2013 to 231.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.
“The fact is we’ve made amazing progress if your goal is to be reducing carbon dioxide emissions,” said Sam Randazzo, general counsel for Industrial Energy Users — Ohio.
He said even without the Clean Power Plan there are other environmental regulations and market forces — particularly the low price and abundance of natural gas — that are pushing down carbon dioxide emissions in Ohio.
Some utility companies are moving toward renewables, not just because of regulations but also because it makes economic sense.
“Renewables are becoming more competitive,” said Melissa McHenry, spokewsoman for American Electric Power, which has customers in Ohio and other states. “AEP has long supported and taken action to reduce our greenhouse emissions.”
The company is adding large-scale solar resources to its portfolio, retiring coal-fired plants, switching to natural gas-fired plants and is on track to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 25 percent from 2005 levels by 2017, she said.
Kabel said Dayton Power and Light Co. has a solar array in Washington Twp. that can generate enough electricity to power 150 homes annually.
“We think that solar has actually helped drive costs down of all utilities, of all energy costs, so there’s competition. That’s healthy for the economy,” said Neil Chaudhry, founder and CEO of Solar Power & Light in Miamisburg.
“I think 20 years from now there’s going to be a lot more solar, there’s going to be more renewable energy and there’s going to be a lot more electric vehicles on the road,” he said. “I think we’re going to look back at this 100-year era of fossil fuel — especially when we look at driving cars on a tank of gas — and we’re going to say, ‘Why didn’t we switch to electric sooner? Why did we pollute the environment the way we did?’ ”
James Menart, founder and director of Wright State University’s Renewable and Clean Energy Program said, “When the economics get there, the environment is going to take care of itself.”
Ray Davis, president of OGW Energy Resources, said while environmental stewardship is important to him, it’s the technology and economics — not necessarily climate change — that drive his Tipp City company and its clients.
“With solar it’s getting easier and easier to get to net-neutral in terms of cash flow,” Davis said.
Randazzo and others argue that government mandates and subsidies like tax credits are the only way renewables like wind and solar are becoming competitive. They say that puts government in the position of artificially propping up expensive renewable energy sources. Nichols argues that businesses, not the government, spur innovation and will be the ones to come up with new energy technologies.
Environmentalists scoff at the notion that energy companies haven’t benefited hugely from subsidies over the years.
“Coal and oil have been winners for centuries,” said Amanda Woodrum, a researcher at the liberal think tank Policy Matters Ohio. “There are huge environmental benefits to clean energy and there are huge health costs associated with our current system.”
The goal of the Paris climate talks, the 21st Conference of the Parties, was to lead the world to carbon neutrality by the end of the century and limit Earth’s temperature rise to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over the planet’s pre-industrial norm.
Last year was the Earth’s warmest since the U.S. started keeping records in 1880.
The average surface temperature is now about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it was in 1880, a trend principally attributed to the increase in carbon dioxide and other human emissions, according to scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Climate scientists say without cutting emissions, the world’s warming is likely to surpass 2 degrees Celsius and potentially reach 7 degrees Celsius, which could have devastating effects, including rising sea levels and more extreme weather events that could lead to destabilizing population displacement and widespread famine.
“The way I look at it is if you know that something bad is going to happen in your life, but you don’t know if you’re going to fall sick in 10 days or a month, would you really care if it was 10 days or one month?” said Sukh Sidhu, who leads the University of Dayton Research Institute’s Sustainable Environmental Technologies group. “Wouldn’t you want to do something before that?”
Among scientists, there’s little debate left except how devastating global warming will be and how quickly and deeply the effects will be felt unless the world takes action, he said.
“Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities,” according to a NASA fact sheet on global warming. ”In addition, most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.”
“There is not any 97 percent agreement on how much of it is caused by man,” he said. “I think there has always been climate change. There was a time when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. There was a time when the glaciers extended to Moraine.”
Strahorn said it is urgent to reduce the world’s carbon emissions for very concrete reasons.
“You don’t have to believe that climate change is real to understand the economic growth and positive health impacts that result from investing in advanced and renewable energy technologies that reduce our state’s carbon emissions.”