The Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed the Obama administration’s most ambitious environmental initiative: a new rule to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

The proposed rule is controversial, with opponents complaining of a “war on coal” and warning of crippling effects on the American economy. But their rhetoric is misguided. The proposed rule will be good for the world, the nation and, more particularly, the state of Maine.

The EPA’s proposal is complex, but a quick summary should help explain its content.

The goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel power plants. To achieve that goal, the EPA would set overall emissions reduction targets for each state, and it would require that states adopt plans for achieving those targets. States can reduce emissions by making existing power plants more efficient, by shifting to lower-carbon energy sources, by reducing energy demand or by combinations of these techniques.

The rule will have three primary effects.

First, by 2030, it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from utilities by approximately 30 percent (compared to 2005 levels).

 Second, the rule will reduce emissions of other air pollutants.

 Third, the rule should accelerate an ongoing shift from coal – which emits more air pollution than any other major energy source – to natural gas and renewable energy.

These changes will benefit the nation, the world and, in three key ways, the state of Maine.

 The first benefit will be a direct reduction in air pollutants like mercury, sulfur dioxide and smog.

Fish consumption advisories currently cover every freshwater body in Maine. The primary reason for those advisories is mercury contamination, and the main source of that contamination is smoke from the same Midwestern coal plants whose operations will be limited by the EPA’s new rule. Every step taken to reduce emissions from those coal plants will bring closer the day when Maine’s children can safely eat the fish they catch.

Those coal plants also send acid rain and smog across state lines, contributing to air quality problems up and down the Eastern seaboard. In Maine, smog levels exceed federal standards every summer, and shifting away from coal would help address that problem as well.

 A second effect would be to improve Maine’s economic competitiveness.

In March, according to the Energy Information Administration, Maine industries paid an average of 12.2 cents per kilowatt-hour for energy. Kentucky industries paid an average of 5.64 cents per kilowatt-hour. That difference exists largely because coal-burning power plants don’t pay for the costs they send downwind; they pay no compensation, for example, for contaminating Maine’s lakes.

The proposed new rule won’t fix that disparity, largely because its modest targets won’t push coal states all that hard. But it will at least move coal users a little closer to accounting for the real cost of their power, and that will help Maine compete for industrial development.

 The third benefit is to advance the process of responding to climate change.

Climate change is a global issue, but it is especially threatening for a state where thousands of miles of shoreline are directly at risk from rising seas. Unstable weather patterns also are particularly problematic for Maine; our infrastructure wasn’t built to withstand the kinds of massive storms that are becoming increasingly common.

This one rule won’t make those problems go away. But as the United States advances its development and deployment of renewable-energy technologies, those technologies will become cheaper. That will advance their use not just in the United States, but also in other coal-dependent countries like China and India. And that will benefit the nation, and our state, for generations to come.

The proposed rule was a political flashpoint before it was released, and with controversy unlikely to abate in the months ahead, the EPA is going to need congressional support. Maine’s congressional delegation should lead the effort.

Maine has a longstanding tradition of protecting air quality. Sens. Ed Muskie and George Mitchell played crucial roles in drafting and amending the Clean Air Act, and, more recently, Sens. Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and Angus King and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud have been consistent votes for sustaining air quality protection. With this rule, that bipartisan commitment to environmental leadership should continue.

— Special to the Press Herald