U.S. Enters the Paris Climate Change Conference Committed to Curbing Power Plant Pollution

In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama noted that “No challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.” But the threats posed by climate change are not some distant concern for future generations. They are impacting our lives now. Severe storms, wildfires, and floods are occurring more frequently and on a larger scale because of climate change. Changes in weather patterns are resulting in more severe droughts that reduce crop yields and increase food prices.  

Starting today, representatives from 195 countries will meet in Paris for the Climate Change Conference with the goal of developing binding international agreements to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas pollution. The United States has demonstrated leadership by recently adopting rules to limit the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by power plants, the largest source of carbon pollution. But the new Clean Power Plant rules were immediately challenged in lawsuits filed by 26 state governments, companies in the coal industry, public power utilities and the National Association of Manufacturers. Procedural challenges were also filed in Congress to overturn the rules for new and existing power plants. 

Not content to let the legal process determine whether the EPA rules are valid, anti-regulation members in Congress have introduced ideological policy “riders” attached to must-pass budget legislation that would overturn EPA’s Clean Power Plan rules. Given the President’s commitment to addressing climate change and his strong support for these EPA rules, we believe that any funding bill that contains such a rider would be vetoed and could trigger a government shutdown.  This backdoor attempt at undermining an essential program to reduce carbon pollution is just one of more than 100 riders attacking environmental protections through the government funding process.

To date, the electric utilities that emit the largest amount of carbon pollution have remained in the background, letting other corporate interests and trade associations lead the charge against the Clean Power Plan.

The chart below lists the top ten electric utility companies whose power plants emit the largest quantities of carbon pollution, as well as their most recent corporate profits. The 857 million tons of carbon dioxide emitted from just these top ten companies, who netted over $15 billion in profits last year, accounted for 44 percent of total carbon pollution from the 100 largest electric power producing companies. 

Electric Utility Company

Carbon Dioxide Emissions
(tons, 2013)

Profits ($ 2014)




  American Electric Power



  Southern  Company









  Tennessee Valley Authority



  First Energy






  Energy Futures Holdings









Source:  M.J. Bradley and Associates, Benchmarking Air Emissions of the 100 Largest Electric Power Producers in the United States, 2015; Company 2014 SEC 10-K form filings

While electric utilities have raised the specter of power shortages and big increases in consumer electricity prices, the reality is that over the long-term, the cost of energy to consumers is projected to decrease due to lower energy demand from improved energy efficiency.  Not all costs of complying with environmental regulations are necessarily passed on to consumers – state utility regulators and boards of public-power companies and cooperatives generally require that companies meet environmental requirements by implementing changes that minimize costs to consumers. Clearly, the big polluting investor-owned and privately-held utilities listed above can well afford to undertake the cost of controls.

The outcome of the Paris Conference will be prove to be decisive as to whether the nations of the world move forward in effectively addressing perhaps the greatest challenge of our generation. The American public strongly supports addressing the threat of climate change and the Clean Power Plan rules – the most recent New York Times/CBS News poll finds that two-thirds of Americans support the U.S. joining a binding international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions and almost a similar number support limiting carbon emissions from U.S. power plants. And yesterday, over half a million people in more than 150 countries participated in climate change rallies to show their support for strong and immediate action to come out of the Paris conference.

Industry lobbyists and their supporters in Congress should take heed of the American public’s strong support for U.S. action to address climate change.

Also read: The Clean Power Plan: A Victory for Public Health, the Environment, and Democracy

Photo Credit: Avaaz.org

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