On Friday, November 8, I attended my first ever public policy hearing held in downtown Chicago as part of a series of meetings to get citizen reactions to proposed EPA regulations on carbon pollution standards on power plants.
I was planning on simply listening and supporting fellow climate activists. I didn’t really think I had much to add. But I was convinced to sign up for a three-minute speaking slot, which was an astonishingly simple process. I had already registered, so they just found my name and told me to take a number. I was number 55.
The room was set up with three EPA representatives at a table. A table with four chairs and microphones was set in front of them. I admired the efficient yet courteous way the whole thing was run. Speakers were organized in groups of ten. Four speakers sat at the table, speaking two at a time. Everyone had three minutes, and a timekeeper kept things moving.
It was obvious that the different coalitions all came in clusters. The first 20 or so that came up were predominantly pro-coal: coal miners and their families, mostly from downstate Illinois or Indiana; members of the boilermakers’ union; power and energy industries like the Prairie State Generating Company, clearly were the earliest to arrive and grab the first speaking slots.
The key talking points for these groups were jobs and economy. Almost all insisted that “unfunded EPA mandates” would drive utilities to bankruptcy, throw thousands of people out of work, cause energy rationing, “reduce the standard of life and life expectancy,” drive families into poverty as electricity rates soar, and force poor grandmothers to choose between their medicine or their heat.
The other main talking point the pro-coal contingency used was the insistence that US coal was a minor contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Several quoted a statistic that US coal is responsible for a mere “4% of total global CO2 emissions, and that China and India are far higher contributors” of GHGs.
Yet there were only two clear out-and-out climate deniers: one insisted that CO2 was not a pollutant, but a harmless, odorless gas that ends up as water vapor and clouds. He urged the EPA not to listen to the “phony claims” and “imaginary threats” of “global warming fanatics” and to abandon this “costly and futile fight,” and the “ever-increasing government intrusion” into our lives. You could hear the smirks when he declared cheerfully that “things are better when winters are warmer.”
I was concerned that I’d be listening to this stuff all day. But then the environmentalists started to speak up. In droves. A grandfather who said “we don’t need an industry-friendly plan, we need an earth-friendly plan.”
A letter from Illinois Senator Dick Durbin the EPA to “address the causes and impacts of carbon pollution” from power plants–the “single largest source of CO2 emissions.” Lisa Albrecht from Illinois Solar Energy Association explained that fossil fuels were “yesterday’s technologies, and renewables are the new standard.”
Then it was my turn. The statement I brought was scribbled out and almost completely rewritten as I listened to the pro-coal arguments. Here are a few of the comments I shared with the regulators:
“This debate should not be framed as a strawman either-or argument between jobs vs. our health and our environment. I can’t pretend to lecture you, EPA regulators, on climate science. I’m just here to add my voice and my vote. But to those that argue that other countries are bigger contributors of CO2 emissions, my response is that the US needs to be the leader and role model for those countries and we have no right to demand they change their habits until we clean our own house. If plant owners decry that these regulations would be cost prohibitive, ask how costly are these measures compared the cost of superstorm cleanups, healthcare costs due to the rising rates of asthma, cancers and other pollution related illnesses? Not to mention the costs of increased floods and crop loss from droughts? We need to place the burden of those costs on the shoulders of those who have created them. We’re at a point where we simply have no choice–the status quo is no longer an option.”
After I spoke, I joined a lunch-hour rally at Federal Plaza, where climate change activists gathered to show support for the proposed regulations. Speakers from environmental groups all over the Midwest rallied the crowd of a few hundred supporters in the brisk November sunshine.
Hovering around the perimeter were the coal supporters, no doubt listening querulously to the chants of the job-killing tree-huggers, as their truck with the “Protect American Jobs” banner parked across from the demonstrators.
The Sierra Club was passing out aqua shirts with the slogan “CLIMATE ACTION NOW” on them. When I returned to the hearing after the rally, a sea of those aqua shirts dominated the room. The remaining speakers, every last one, pleaded with the EPA to enact stringent carbon regulations. The coal supporters were nowhere to be found.
Contingents from Wisconsin, Indianapolis, Michigan, Flossmoor, La Grange, the Twin Cities, spoke, as did students from all over the Midwest. High school students and grandparents worried for their future. If the EPA was taking a head count, surely the environmentalists won the day.
The event wrapped up by 4:30. All told, in the main room 137 citizens spoke, plus 35 from a second room (and I believe there was a third room as well). I admired the stamina of the panelists who sat listening to testimony for hours on end.
Curious about how the EPA was planning to use the hundreds of statements they listened to that day, we asked one of the panelists what he felt the purpose of these hearings was. Do you really take into account all the testimonies you heard? He assured us that while they weren’t conducting “an opinion poll or a survey,” they are very much interested in hearing people’s ideas and concerns, and a staff person was taking notes on each statement.
Eleven hearings in total were held across the country. In addition, the EPA is accepting written testimony by fax, email (a-and-r-Docket@epa.gov) and phone. For me, however, the emotional impact of sitting face to face with a government agency and listening to people’s personal stories beats the heck out of sending an email.
I don’t know whether the EPA will be swayed by the events in Chicago and elsewhere, but as a citizen, I certainly was moved; and I strongly urge anyone who needs a boost of optimism about the state of democracy in America today to participate in these types of hearings.