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Editorial: Policy trails reality on emissions

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The EPA’s plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is a complex web of regulations based on the feasibility of alternative energy options in a given state, its current reliance on coal generation, plans already underway to reduce emissions and other factors.

As expected, the proposal — to reduce the emissions from power generation 30 percent by 2030 compared to 2005 — was greeted pretty much across the board with objections, and the commenting period has hardly begun. The agency, in fact, doesn’t expect to have final rules in place until June 2015.

The overarching question is whether government should interfere this way. The EPA plan seems to pit state against state in an unfair, politics-tinged economic competition. States like Washington, for example, rely mainly on hydropower, while Pennsylvania remains among the top five states in the nation for coal-powered generation.

But this is the role of government, to set policy on issues of national importance, and the plan leaves it to the states to decide how to meet the goals. In laying out a 15-year plan, it also is a rare instance of rationality for government.

It also is one of those rare occasions where market forces are ahead of policy. Coal is no longer king in America. In the last 50 years, the number of coal miners has dropped from some 141,000 to about 82,000, partly because of technology but partly because of lower demand. In Pennsylvania, according to Gov. Corbett, about 8,500 people still make their livings mining coal.

Meanwhile, because the commonwealth has the good fortune to be sitting on vast reserves of natural gas, a new energy industry is coming to the fore, and power generators are embracing it. The EPA wants to encourage the closure, retrofitting or upgrading of coal-fired electric plants, but the energy companies themselves are well down that path because of the lower generation costs from natural gas and the promise of abundant, cheap future supplies.

Pennsylvania’s businesses know this, too. They’ve embraced choice in both electricity and natural-gas suppliers and, despite the harsh winter demand that drove up energy bills, they are seeing the benefits of rate competition that encourages generators to innovate.

So despite the EPA’s efforts to bring influence to bear, progress toward both a healthier planet and business efficiencies is occurring. Someday we may look back and see that the regulatory push was more an acknowledgment of reality than a game-changer.

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