Why small businesses should take a stand on power plants

Policy Matters

Why small businesses should take a stand on power plants

Power plant image by Kodda via Shutterstock.com

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took a big step forward in both protecting the country's business interests and helping to level the playing field for energy providers when it proposed new greenhouse gas standards for not-yet-constructed U.S. power plants last month.

While some fossil fuel providers and companies whose business models rely on fossil fuels are protesting, the rest of the energy sector and most small businesses should be cheering. More important, they should be telling policy makers that these new rules -- and those that need to follow in the future -- are vital to their own business.

Small businesses are especially vulnerable to climate change. Whether in retail, tourism, landscape architecture, agriculture, roofing or small-scale manufacturing, small businesses are far less able than large corporations to survive even a single incidence of truly extreme weather. Of the tens of thousands of small businesses hurt by Hurricane Sandy, up to 30 percent of them never recovered, according to a report from the American Sustainable Business Council and the Small Business Majority. This is not surprising considering that the report found that the median cost of downtime for a small business hit by extreme weather is $3,000 per day.

Along the U.S. coastlines, businesses dependent on tourism and other coastal industries are starting campaigns to demonstrate the negative impacts that will be caused by sea level rise due to climate change. 

And these businesses are not alone. Sixty-three percent of small business owners support EPA regulation of carbon from power plants, according to an American Sustainable Business Council survey. Among those business owners, 47 percent self-identified as Republicans, 27 percent as Democrats and 14 percent as Independents.

Reducing the potential for extreme weather and other damaging effects of climate change is a major benefit to all businesses generally. But clean energy providers will benefit twice, because they receive the added benefit of more level competition.

When the government allows lower-cost energy providers to pollute, they are giving them a free ride. Rather than take responsibility for their damage to the environment, high-polluting energy companies are allowed to shift the costs of their pollution onto all of society, including onto other businesses. That is, unless the government puts a stop to it. The new EPA rules do just that for the most pollution-intensive energy: coal.

The impact of the new standards gets directly at dirty coal, capping emissions from any new coal-fired plants at 1,100 lbs of CO2 per megawatt of electricity produced. A typical emission rate for coal plants is closer to 1,800 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour.

Power plants account for a whopping 2.2 billion tons of carbon pollution annually -- nearly 40 percent of U.S. carbon emissions. Most of that is from coal.

The EPA intends to follow these standards for new plants with standards to cap carbon pollution from existing power plants. This will help the clean energy industry, which has already proven that it can create three times more jobs than fossil fuel investments (PDF).

For all these reasons, business owners need to make sure their voices are heard in support of these new power plant standards. The EPA is planning a "listening tour" across the country to gather feedback. This is an important opportunity for business owners to speak out and make the business case for regulating power plant carbon pollution.

But this should be only the beginning. The government can and must do much more. Even with all the associated pollution, the federal government spends nearly six times as much on mature fossil fuel industries than it does on still-nascent, climate-protecting, renewable energy industries, according to the Environmental Law Institute. Unfortunately, the fossil fuel lobby is powerful and vocal.

But there are many more voices of businesses across industry sectors to support pollution standards and many more policies that are needed to protect business interests by reducing climate change. It's time for those voices to be heard.

Power plant image by Kodda via Shutterstock.com

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