With all the recent news and controversy over the Supreme Court’s other rulings, you might have missed West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency. In the case, the Supreme Court invalidated the Clean Power Plan, a strategy proposed by the EPA to set limits on emissions from polluting, coal-burning power plants and encourage utilities to turn to clean energy. This decision, siding with fossil fuel corporations over EPA expert scientists, is out of step with the views of the overwhelming majority of the American people and will cause the world real harm by furthering climate change. The solution? We need legislators who are willing to support policies that limit emissions and prioritize clean energy. Doing so will protect our planet and our health, while creating local jobs and saving Americans money.
Our dependence on coal-fired power plants costs us in multiple ways. Clean energy harnesses resources such as the wind and sun — free and abundant resources in the Midwest — rather than depending on importing fossil fuels from other states and other — sometimes authoritarian — nations. Electricity and gas prices have soared this summer, demonstrating the vulnerability of domestic energy prices to events half a world away. Building brand new wind or solar capacity costs less than merely operating active coal-fired power plants. The EPA’s plan would have encouraged inefficient, polluting coal plants to transition to cheaper, renewable energy sources, allowing ratepayers to tap into savings from clean energy sources. The Supreme Court’s decision will result in steeper bills for utility ratepayers in areas powered by coal to prop up expensive, aging coal plants.
A clean energy transition would also create numerous high-quality jobs here in our communities. Already, there are five times the amount of full-time workers employed in the clean-energy sector than the fossil fuel industry, and the potential for job creation will only increase as we expand solar and wind capacity. The EPA’s plan would have brought lower electricity bills for ratepayers, well-paying manufacturing and construction jobs, and profits for landowners with wind and solar farms on their property — all without any of the environmental degradation associated with coal.
Coal-fired power plants emit large quantities of dangerous chemicals, polluting our environment and placing human lives at risk. These chemicals, produced as by-products during the coal burning process, seep into our environment and waterways, where they endanger human health. For instance, coal plants are the dominant U.S. source of mercury, a toxic metal that can damage the nervous system even in minute quantities, and one that accounted for 36% of all toxic emissions in Minnesota in 2014. The risk to younger populations is so great that children in Wisconsin under the age of 15 are encouraged to restrict their intake of locally caught fish because the mercury concentration is too high in the state’s waters. This is just one example of how the Supreme Court’s decision has needlessly put lives at risk.
Coal-fired power plants also emit large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, almost twice that of natural gas, and, as of 2020, they account for 54% of emissions from electricity generation nationwide. We’ve already seen the effects of those emissions across the Midwest. In our cities, high temperature records have been repeatedly broken in recent years, costing money and lives. Dangerous flooding has overtopped our rivers and devastated nearby communities. Left unabated, these effects of climate change will only increase at great cost to our health, economy and agricultural yields.
Unfortunately, by handcuffing the EPA’s regulatory authority, the Supreme Court makes it clear that it opposes the global scientific consensus that climate change is an existential threat and the concerns of a clear majority of the American people. At a time when climate scientists are warning us that imminent reductions in greenhouse emissions are crucial for the health of our planet, six justices with no scientific background have stripped the regulatory authority of the agency best equipped to guide us to a healthier, cleaner future.
If the recent news out of Washington, D.C., is true — that climate provisions will not be included in a reconciliation package — it’s imperative we elect political candidates in November who will prioritize transitioning away from fossil fuels. We must do so for the health of our families and our planet, not to mention our wallets. Once elected, our representatives must include ambitious clean energy provisions in legislation. We ignore the danger of the Supreme Court’s shortsighted, overreaching decision at our own peril. Let’s seize the moment to reduce our dependence on coal before time to act runs out.
Dr. James Boulter is a chemistry professor in UW-Eau Claire’s Public Health and Environmental Studies department. He received a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry with an emphasis in atmospheric sciences from the University of Colorado-Boulder.