Near the end of the second debate between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, a man named Ken Bone stood up in his red sweater to ask a question, and instantly became an Internet sensation. Somewhat lost in all the online attention that followed was the topic of Bone’s question, and the candidates’ replies.
“What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs,” Bone asked, “while at the same time, remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?”
The responses of the two candidates to the question are a matter of record, and you can find transcripts and video of their replies on many major news outlets. As someone who has been concerned about the public health risks of fossil fuels for some time, I thought about how I might answer his question.
Big changes in state
First, I would thank him for bringing up the issues of energy and the environment. It is a serious topic that deserves more attention, and not just at election time. Here in Minnesota, we are seeing some big changes in the energy business, sparked by market forces, state regulation, and a growing demand for renewable energy. There is also the possibility that new federal rules to reduce carbon emissions at existing power plants will bring more changes.
The amount of coal Minnesota is using to generate electricity has been declining in recent years, reflecting a national trend seen even in coal-producing states. Minnesota has no coal resources, so it must import all the coal it uses from other states. Many of the state’s roughly 40 coal-fired facilities are old and inefficient. As the availability of natural gas has grown and its price dropped, several plants have converted to natural gas or closed altogether.
This is a trend that is likely to continue, as wind power continues to grow in the Midwest (nearly 20 percent of Minnesota’s electric power is wind generated) and the burgeoning solar power sector grows, spurred by a 2013 state law that requires 1.5 percent solar power by 2020.
Also on the horizon is the Clean Power Plan, rules set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the authority of the Clean Air Act. While these rules would favor the use of cleaner forms of energy over coal, they have not yet gone into effect. If there is a “war on coal,” as some claim, it is coming from the market forces, not government regulation.
Working to minimize job losses
The economic effect of our changing energy picture is already being considered in communities like Becker, Minnesota, home of the single largest coal plant – and greenhouse gas emitter – in the state. The city and Xcel Energy have been working closely to minimize job losses as that plant plans to close down two of its coal-fired boilers. Xcel Energy has stopped burning coal in recent years at several units in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Bloomington, and it did so without laying off a single person due to the changing fuel sources.
The Clean Power Plan is important, because it is the United States’ first major effort to reduce carbon emissions and is also the primary means of fulfilling our nation’s promise when we signed the international Paris Climate Accord.
In addition to potentially slowing the rate of global climate change, the Clean Power Plan also provides the immediate health benefits of reducing the amount of particulate pollution in our air – a type of pollution whose negative effects of human health are well known and well documented.
In a state with a relatively healthy economy, with growth in renewable power and in other industries, the prospects for the relatively few workers who work directly with coal to find new positions looks better than in other states more dependent on the coal economy.
CPP will help protect health
When implemented, the Clean Power Plan will help protect health by bolstering the growth of clean fuels and increasing energy efficiency. The Clean Power Plan prompts Minnesota and other states to use energy more efficiently and to continue the transition to cleaner energy sources. Thanks to the dangerous pollution it would reduce, the Clean Power Plan will prevent 3,600 premature deaths and 90,000 asthma attacks each year when fully implemented.
Cleaner energy, healthier air and a strong economy — it’s the type of answer to our energy policy questions that many Americans have been waiting to hear. There is no debate that we all want a healthy environment for ourselves and for future generations.
Robert Moffitt is the communications director of the American Lung Association in Minnesota.
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