The Heat Is Online

Obama plan would cut coal plant emissions 30 percent by 2030

Unveiling New Carbon Plan, E.P.A. Focuses on Flexibility

The New York Times, June 2, 2014

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Monday announced one of the strongest actions ever taken by the United States government to fight climate change, a proposed Environmental Protection Agency regulation to cut carbon pollution from the nation’s power plants 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, according to people briefed on the plan.

The regulation takes aim at the largest source of carbon pollution in the United States, the nation’s more than 600 coal-fired power plants. If it withstands an expected onslaught of legal and legislative attacks, experts say that it could close hundreds of the plants and also lead, over the course of decades, to systemic changes in the American electricity industry, including transformations in how power is generated and used.

Gina McCarthy, the E.P.A. administrator, unveiled the proposal in a speech Monday morning.

“Today, climate change — fueled by carbon pollution — supercharges risks not just to our health, but to our communities, our economy, and our way of life,” Ms. McCarthy said.

President Obama announced on Monday a proposal to significantly cut carbon pollution from power plants.

The regulation is likely to stand as President Obama’s last chance to substantially shape domestic policy and as a defining element of his legacy. The president, who failed to push a sweeping climate change bill through Congress in his first term, is now acting on his own by using his executive authority under the 1970 Clean Air Act to issue the regulation.

Under the rule, states will be given a wide menu of policy options to achieve the pollution cuts. Rather than immediately shutting down coal plants, states would be allowed to reduce emissions by making changes across their electricity systems — by installing new wind and solar generation or energy-efficiency technology, and by starting or joining state and regional “cap and trade” programs, in which states agree to cap carbon pollution and buy and sell permits to pollute.
In her remarks, Ms. McCarthy repeatedly emphasized the plan’s flexibility.

“That’s what makes it ambitious, but achievable. That’s how we can keep our energy affordable and reliable. The glue that holds this plan together — and the key to making it work — is that each state’s goal is tailored to its own circumstances, and states have the flexibility to reach their goal in whatever way works best for them,” she said.

Ms. McCarthy also said that the proposal will help the economy, not hurt it.

“For over four decades, E.P.A. has cut air pollution by 70 percent and the economy has more than tripled. All while providing the power we need to keep America strong. Climate action doesn’t dull America’s competitive edge — it sharpens it. It spurs ingenuity and innovation,” she said.

The E.P.A. estimates that the rule will cost $7.3 billion to $8.8 billion annually, but will lead to economic benefits of $55 billion to $93 billion over the life of the rule, according to a person briefed on the plan.

Critics complain that the rule will drive up electricity costs, but the E.P.A forecasts that the rule will increase energy efficiency, leading to an average decrease of about 8 percent on electricity bills nationally when the program is fully implemented in 2030.

The E.P.A. also forecasts that the rule will prevent 2,700 to 6,600 premature deaths and 140,000 to 150,000 asthma attacks. There is no link between carbon pollution and asthma, but the E.P.A. estimates that future coal plant closures will lead to a 25 percent reduction in traditional air pollutants like soot, sulfur and nitrogen, which are linked to respiratory diseases.

Ms. McCarthy said that the plan will create demand for designing and building energy-efficient technology at power plants, throughout the electric grid, and in homes and buildings.

“All this means more jobs, not less,” she said. She added: “We’ll need tens of thousands of American workers — in construction, transmission, and more — to make cleaner power a reality.”

Because burning coal is the largest source of the greenhouse gas emissions that scientists blame for trapping heat in the atmosphere and dangerously warming the planet, the rule is expected to have a powerful environmental impact. It comes on top of a regulation Mr. Obama issued in his first term that sharply increased the required fuel economy of vehicles, the second-largest source of carbon pollution in the United States.

Experts said that the new regulation would set the United States on track to meet its target set forth in a United Nations accord in 2009, when Mr. Obama pledged that the United States would cut its greenhouse gas pollution 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, and 83 percent by 2050.

The E.P.A. estimates that the 30 percent reduction in carbon pollution from power plants will be the equivalent of cancelling carbon pollution from two-thirds of all cars and trucks in America.

Although the rule will target coal-fired power plants, the E.P.A. says it will allow states several years to retire existing coal plants, rather than forcing the immediate shutdown of such plants. The E.P.A. estimates that under the rule, 30 percent of the U.S. electricity mix will still come from coal in 2030, down from about 40 percent today.

On Sunday, environmental advocates praised the proposed rule for its breadth and reach while the coal industry attacked it as a symbol of executive overreach that could wreak economic havoc. Republican campaigns plan to use the rule to attack incumbent Democrats in this fall’s midterm elections.

“This momentous announcement raises the bar for controlling carbon emissions in the United States,” said  Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute, a Washington research organization, adding, “These new standards send a powerful message around the world.”

Scott Segal, a lawyer with the firm Bracewell & Giuliani, which represents coal companies and plans to sue over the rule, wrote in an email, “Clearly, it is designed to materially damage the ability of conventional energy sources to provide reliable and affordable power, which in turn can inflict serious damage on everything from household budgets to industrial jobs.”

Last week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued a report warning that the rule could lower the gross domestic product by $50 billion annually.

The proposal unveiled Monday was a draft, open to public comment, and is certain to set off a wave of lobbying from states, industry groups and environmentalists seeking to shape the final version of the rule. While there is no legal deadline for finalizing the regulation, Mr. Obama has directed the E.P.A. to issue the rule by June 2015 so that the administration can begin putting the program in place before he leaves office.