That was the banner headline in Alaska newspapers on August 3, when EPA announced its Clean Power Plan, exactly four weeks before President Obama used a trip to Alaska to tout its benefits. I was in Fairbanks that day, and what made the Plan so popular among Alaskans seemed not to be the climate benefits, but the total absence—for them—of any costs. The president also exempted his home state of Hawaii from having to comply. Officially EPA says it “lacks sufficient information” to put these two states on a carbon diet, but the truth is likely the opposite: the small, isolated power grids in these states render the costs of compliance, and the adverse environmental consequences, all too easy to see.
EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which imposes carbon budgets on states where electricity is produced, is the central pillar of the president’s climate strategy, and it faces some tough legal as well as political challenges. Part of the rule’s vulnerability is that it is justified using a “Social Cost of Carbon” that is global—i.e., while the costs are domestic, most of the benefits go overseas. Hence the president’s marketing campaign trip last week stressed that climate change entails risks to America, too, threatening the Alaska “way of life.” When they are candid, Alaskans admit that a little bit of warming in the winter doesn’t sound so bad; but they are indeed proud of their way of life and of the harsh environment in which they live it. Another possible threat is to the landscape; during our visit, all across the state, National Park Service naturalists would talk, as if reading from a teleprompter, about the receding glaciers and the challenges of climate change. But one of them managed to slip in an unscripted footnote: “Of course, this glacier started receding well before the industrial revolution, so you might take that into account as you think about what might be causing it.”
Receding glaciers are certainly a real phenomenon. In the photo above, Denali seems in no danger of losing its ice, but in the middle distance you can see the rocks of the rugged Talkeetna range, still pale in the saddles where glaciers once sat. The main concern of the Alaskans I spoke with, however, was not the glaciers; rather, was is the fate of the Susitna River in the foreground of the photo. Recently the Alaskan Energy Authority has revived a proposal originally made by the U.S. Department of the Interior: the Susitna Hydroelectric Project. If built, it will be the most expensive hydroelectric dam ever built in North America, and it will supply power to Alaska’s central railbelt, where most of the state’s population lives.
There are serious environmental concerns about the project. Like many Alaska rivers, “The Su” flows two ways: the water flows downstream to the ocean; but vast quantities of nutrients from the ocean flow upstream, in the form of salmon, into the interior. The salmon spawn there, and die, and feed the eagles and the bears and ultimately the entire ecosystem—which otherwise, having been scraped clean by glaciers, might be rather barren. Many Alaskan environmentalists view the salmon as the very roots of the trees of the forests, and adamantly oppose damming the Su. As I stood there, watching the salmon run, it did seem unthinkable.
Proponents of the dam note that it will be located above the major salmon runs, and claim that the flows can be managed so that the fish are not harmed. The alternative is to burn more fossil fuels (probably natural gas) for electricity. Economically, fossil fuels have been very good to Alaskans, but they also remember the damage done by the oil spill from the Exxon Valdez. Dam proponents will also point out that burning fossil-fuels will put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which could change the earth’s temperature, which would affect the timing of spring breakup, which might affect the salmon runs. Maybe so; but while standing beside the Susitna, watching the salmon run, that reasoning seemed far too speculative. In contrast, the proposed dam seems, well, . . . concrete.
The Alaska legislature has set a goal for the state to get half of its energy from renewable sources by 2025, and damming the Su would help accomplish that goal. I don’t pretend to know what the right answer is; nor do I know what Alaska will ultimately decide. But I know that, if EPA imposed a mandatory carbon cap on Alaska, the dam’s proponents would seize upon that to advance their project. If they were successful, President Obama would surely get the blame; the dots are too easy to connect.
The energy options in Hawaii look a little different. That state’s high cliffs (pali) are ideally situated to catch the ocean breezes, and could, at great expense, supply most of Hawaii’s electricity demand. But many residents recoil at the sight of the high ridges bristling with wind turbines, and at the death toll the turbines take on the native birds, including Hawaii’s state bird, the beloved nene. If the president had capped fossil-fueled power there, many more Hawaiian ridges would likely become covered with wind turbines.
Of course, there are also difficult trade-offs to be made in the contiguous 48 states. In addition to higher utility bills and lower reliability, the Clean Power Plan may force states to choose energy options that are more environmentally damaging than the existing fossil-fueled infrastructure. But with numerous power producers, interconnected grids, a maze of state plans, and linked carbon markets, the chain of cause and effect will be more variegated and difficult to trace. In a benefit-cost analysis, as in politics, this complex terrain makes it easier to engage in a game of smoke and mirrors. Regulatory agencies can make grand claims about the benefits that will flow from their good intentions, while finding other parties or other factors to blame for any “unintended” adverse consequences. When bad things happen, the president will have plausible deniability.
In contrast, Alaska and Hawaii both have “island” power systems, where the consequences of capping carbon will be all too easy for everyone to see. The president did not want to be greeted in Alaska with “Don’t Dam the Su” demonstrators; neither, should he decide to retire in Hawaii, would he want the carcasses of dead nene laid at his door.
As the covered states contemplate the clean power plans that the EPA is demanding, how many might be tempted to say that they do not have enough information, and petition for the same exemption that the agency gave Alaska and Hawaii? Expect the president to stick to his story, even though he knew Alaskans wouldn’t buy it: “Pay no attention to the river of costs in the foreground. Just focus on that beautiful mountain of benefits in the cloudy distance.”