July 9, 2009

Who will regulate carbon?

The State
Couick, Timberlake: Who will regulate carbon?
Michael Couick and Ann Timberlake
July 8, 2009

Whatever you may think about the reality of global warming, the political climate in Washington has changed, bringing with it both challenges and opportunities for South Carolina. How we respond to any potential climate legislation coming out of Washington will play a determining role in our state’s future. And while media pundits and activists at both ends of the spectrum have attempted to polarize the debate, those of us in two important sectors — energy and conservation — know that what is required is a nuanced, strategic response.

Last month the U.S. House passed, along mostly party lines, the American Clean Energy and Security Act. The debate on the House floor revealed deep divisions over climate change and whether this legislation will help or harm our country at a time of deep economic recession. Lost in the debate, however, was another important issue: Two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide is a pollutant subject to regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency.

In other words, unless Congress acts, the EPA will begin implementing its own program to limit carbon emissions.

This point was not lost on Congressmen Jim Clyburn and John Spratt, who noted recently that the EPA lacks the ability and resources to regulate carbon emissions in a way that takes current economic conditions into account. Without prompt action from Congress, the EPA mandates might put our state and nation at even greater risk for economic disruption.

Congressmen Clyburn and Spratt also recognized that early drafts of the legislation put South Carolina at a competitive disadvantage by rewarding a disproportionate share of emission allowances to utilities and electric cooperatives in other states. Thanks to the efforts of both men, the final bill distributes these allowances more equitably and gives South Carolina greater flexibility as we seek to meet renewable energy benchmarks in the federal bill.

Meeting these benchmarks will be a challenge, but over time South Carolina has the potential to make significant progress in promoting a clean energy future. Offshore wind and solar energy have long-term potential as options for residential and business customers. Biomass — energy from wood chips and other waste materials — is already in use and, in many cases, is a cost-effective alternative to fossil fuel generation.

We can also make great strides in efficiency. South Carolina’s electric cooperatives have set an ambitious goal of weatherizing 25 percent of their members’ housing over the next decade. This initiative is not only good for the environment, it is good for consumer pocketbooks. After all, the cheapest and cleanest kilowatt-hour of electricity is the one we don’t have to generate.

Without question our state still faces significant challenges, particularly as ratepayers confront rising utility bills due to increases in the costs of the construction of new generation and the rising costs of the fossil fuels used to generate electricity. Businesses and consumers alike will have to become more conscious about the way we produce and use energy. Congressmen Clyburn and Spratt are committed to minimizing the impacts on consumers, and the public sector can play a supporting role. For example, by updating building codes and promoting energy efficiency, the General Assembly and local governments have set an example for the private sector while saving taxpayer dollars.

So despite the challenges, we have reasons to be optimistic, and both South Carolina’s electric cooperatives and Conservation Voters of South Carolina thank Congressmen Jim Clyburn and John Spratt for their leadership in improving the American Clean Energy and Security Act so that more dollars stay home in South Carolina where they can be used to promote clean energy, efficiency and home-grown renewables. We look forward to working with Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint to build upon this legislation and to promote an energy-independent and secure South Carolina.

Mr. Couick is CEO of the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina; Ms. Timberlake is executive director of Conservation Voters of South Carolina.

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