In June, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed rules designed to cut carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal plants by 30 percent by 2030.
The proposal has been hotly debated since then, and one of only four public input sessions nationwide begins Thursday morning in Pittsburgh.
Because the power industry is responsible for more than a third of all carbon emissions in the U.S, it seemed to many to be the best place to start. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the agency received approximately 300,000 public comments before the hearings began.
“We want to leave no stone unturned and no good ideas should be off the table," she said. "That’s why we’re so excited to kick off the public hearings across the country."
The public debate in Pittsburgh began Wednesday with a pair of rallies. Highmark Stadium near Station Square was the site of a pro-coal rally. The expected implementation of the new standards has prompted some energy producers to shutter older coal-fired power plants preemptively, and there are fears that more closures are to come, which will lead to fewer jobs in coal mines.
At the rally, coal miner Fred Harris said the EPA’s regulations would not only cripple the coal mine industry, but also they will hurt the entire nation.
“You’re going to have rolling black outs," Harris said. "You are going to have high electric bills, and I don’t see the sense in shipping our jobs overseas and buying back energy to support our country.”
On the same day several healthcare professionals also took to the streets of Pittsburgh to voice their support of the EPA proposals.
“Climate change is bad for our health, burning fossil fuels is also bad for our health,” said Catherine Thomasson, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility. “It’s time to embrace the EPA’s Clean Power Plant Rule, and it’s time to address climate change, stop burning fossil fuels and improve our health.”
The official testimony begins Thursday morning. The list of speakers reads like a who’s-who of coal and energy groups, along with a slew of environmental watchdog groups. The Boilermakers and the United Mine Workers will give testimony, as well as the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance. Alliance president George Ellis said fewer coal plants will result in decreased system reliability, especially when there are spikes in demand.
“During this past winter we had that sustained period of abnormally cold weather and the demand increased, and I think about 92 percent of that additional demand was made up by coal powered generation from power plants that are very vulnerable to being shut down under this proposal,” Ellis said.
Countering the negative assessment from those speakers will be well-known organizations like the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and Penn Future.
“Well, what is the alternative? If not EPA’s rule, what do you want to do instead? What is an alternative way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?”asked Penn Future Energy Center Director Christina Simione. “We can’t continue to delay, we will increase our costs, we have to act and EPA has put a strong framework that balance economic and technical feasibility.”
Many environmental advocates say the EPA proposal to reduce carbon emissions has not gone far enough.
While the debate over power production rages on Thursday in the streets of Pittsburgh and in the hearing rooms in the federal building, others like Communitopia President Joylette Portlock will be speaking about different aspects of the proposed rules.
“To move past the public conversation of ‘the world is doomed, and it's all your fault,’ and just say, ‘OK, we’ve got a problem, let’s roll up our sleeves and figure out the best way to fix it together,’” Portlock said.
Portlock thinks energy efficiency is the place to start the discussion.
“That is the low hanging fruit," Portlock said. "And I think that it’s important that in this new rule from EPA, energy efficiency is built in as part of the way we will achieve these reductions in carbon pollution both on the production as well as on the demand side.”
But it's not just industry and environmental groups that will be testifying. At least two representative from the NAACP will be among the speakers in Pittsburgh, and religious groups like Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light will be well represented.
“Different faith communities and different faith traditions have different teachings, but two of the core teachings that we all hold in common are a call to care for creation and a call to care for the most vulnerable and those things come together in climate change,” said PIPL Executive Director Cricket Hunter.
The hearing is scheduled to run from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. both today and tomorrow. Similar hearings were held this week in Atlanta, Denver and Washington, D.C.