By: Contributing Op-Ed Columnist
I have a very strong feeling for the hard-working families of Louisiana. In my professional life, I’ve traveled throughout the state many times. I remember in particular the hard work of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina and the levee breaches, and I also look back with pride at how we were able to reopen the Dr. King Charter School in New Orleans only two years after that disaster had occurred.
As I picture my friends in Louisiana, I’m struck by the continuing struggle that many of them face in finding financial security. It’s the same worry that I have for many low-income and minority communities throughout the nation, the ones who are often still eking out a living, barely making it from paycheck to paycheck.
When I consider my friends in Louisiana, I’m keenly aware that the state’s economic picture remains mixed. According to the federal government, both Louisiana’s unemployment rate (6.7 percent) and poverty rate (19.2 percent) continue to be above the national average. Median household income throughout the state has actually declined since 2007. And, while Louisiana’s private-sector employers have added 152,900 jobs since February 2010, that still represents the national low point for private-sector employment.
As many Louisiana residents work hard to pay their bills, they do enjoy one bit of good news when it comes to their wallets: The state ranks number two in the nation when it comes to affordable electricity.
But what if each Louisiana household suddenly saw its annual electricity and natural gas bills increase by more than $750? What would that mean to so many families who are already fighting to make ends meet?
I ask this because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is moving toward new power plant regulations for the nation. Intended as a step toward addressing climate change, the EPA wants to curb carbon emissions from coal-burning power plants and wants governors across the country to close their coal-fired plants.
The EPA plan requires Louisiana to significantly reduce its carbon dioxide emissions, which would change the way utilities produce electricity. Keep in mind that 29 percent of electricity in Louisiana is generated by coal.
Such a move could hit Louisiana hard, adversely impacting the state’s present affordable energy rates. Many other states also depend on coal, which means that the affordability of electricity for millions of Americans is at stake.
As I see it, the problem with the EPA’s plan is that the power plants in question often provide the largest portion of our electricity, and usually at the most affordable rates. No matter one’s views on the climate issue, the EPA’s approach is simply too rough. There is already a consensus among energy experts who oversee the nation’s public utilities that the EPA plan will cut power production without offering reliable alternatives, and with almost no actual impact on climate. The only tangible result will be a significant jump in the cost of electricity for both homes and businesses.
I understand the intended reasoning of the EPA plan, namely to cut carbon emissions. But we already have it within our power to move toward a cleaner environment without causing harm to lower income Americans. Advanced technologies are helping us achieve lower emissions. And U.S. power plants are already far cleaner than factories and power plants in Asia.
Paying for electricity is not a discretionary expense. The poor and the elderly on fixed incomes already pay an out-sized portion of their limited budget in order to have heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. And they already have fewer dollars to pay for these necessities. My concern is for their survival and well-being.
We can get to a cleaner environment without victimizing those who are already struggling financially. And so, before the EPA adopts these measures, it should think twice about pursuing extreme rules that will have a negligible environmental impact, but could bring great pain to hard-working everyday Americans.
Charles Steele Jr. is president and CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights organization co-founded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.