Bishops join in backing national carbon rules on power plants

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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Joining other faith groups, the U.S. Catholic bishops are reiterating their support of federal rules limiting carbon produced by existing power plants.

In an open letter dated Wednesday to Gina McCarthy, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the heads of the domestic and international committees of the U.S. bishops' conference said they welcomed the EPA's proposed Clean Power Plan.

[Update: A clarification from the bishops' conference stated the bishops have not endorsed the specific Clean Power Plan but rather support national carbon-cutting standards that EPA could create.]

"We support a national standard to reduce carbon pollution and recognize the important flexibility given to states in determining how best to meet these goals," said Bishops Thomas Wenski and Richard Pates.

Wenski, archbishop of Miami, serves as chair of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. Pates, bishop of Des Moines, Iowa, heads up the Committee on International Justice and Peace.

Their statement was entered as oral testimony Wednesday by Cecilia Calvo, coordinator of the bishops' environmental justice program, during an EPA hearing in Washington. EPA scheduled public hearings throughout the week in four locations across the country, with other hearings taking place in Atlanta, Denver and Pittsburgh. Commenting on the proposed rules remains open through Oct. 16; the Catholic Climate Covenant, which works with the bishops' conference, has urged Catholics to weigh in on the proposals. 

The statement repeats much of what Wenski said about the standards in a letter in late May, days before the McCarthy officially announced the proposed rules.

The Clean Power Plan seeks to cut greenhouse gas emissions produced by coal- and gas-fired power plants by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Power plants are the largest source of carbon pollution in the U.S. and account for a third of the nation's greenhouse emissions. As proposed, the standards would provide states latitude in how they accomplish their specific targets.

"These standards should protect the health and welfare of all people, especially children, the elderly, as well as poor and vulnerable communities, from harmful pollution emitted from power plants and from the impacts of climate change," the bishops said.

At the bishops' spring meeting in New Orleans, Wenski told NCR that shortly after sending the letter May 29 he received a call from McCarthy thanking him for the support: "It was like somebody that was looking for a friend," he said of her happy tone.

"As I told her in our phone conversation, we engage in this issue not because we're scientists but because we're pastors, and again, it's usually the poor that weigh the biggest consequences and the first consequences to bad environmental policies," he said.

In their latest letter, the two bishops said through Catholic Relief Services they have witnessed the "tragic consequences of climate change" upon poor and vulnerable communities, such as less access to water, fewer crops and increases in diseases, more intense droughts and storms, in addition to conflicts, "making the lives of the world's poorest people even more precarious."

Additionally, they cited the numerous health problems associated with air pollution, among them increased risk of premature death and heart attacks and increases in asthma.

Earlier this week, several interfaith groups, including Interfaith Power and Light and Creation Justice Ministries, rallied and testified in support of the Clean Power Plan, emphasizing the moral and practical rationales for curbing carbon emissions and addressing climate change.

At the spring bishops' meeting, Pates said the bishops are taking their cues on how to engage the climate issue from Popes Benedict XVI and Francis, both of whom have spoken consistently on the need to care for creation.

"I think our first cue is just to call attention to the issue, to say that it's a real moral issue," he told NCR, highlighting the popes' vision of creation as a gift.

"We really have to take the steps that show appreciation for the gift and its proper utilization," Pates said.

That means looking at why other nations have taken climate change more seriously than the U.S. in addition to the scientific evidence, he said, "but also to look at our creation and say, regardless of that, we should be taking care of it.

"If we're putting into the air poisonous gases, well perhaps let's take a look at that," Pates said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

A version of this story appeared in the Aug 15-28, 2014 print issue under the headline: Bishops lend support to carbon-cutting rules.

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