WASHINGTON: The Obama administration unveiled a plan Monday to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by nearly a third over the next 15 years, in a sweeping initiative to curb pollutants blamed for global warming.
However, the regulation pushes the deadline for some states to comply until long after President Barack Obama leaves office in early 2017. That means that even if the rules survive legal and other challenges, the dust won’t likely settle on this transformation until well into the next presidential administration, raising the possibility that political dynamics in either Congress or the White House could alter the rule’s course.
Under the plan, expected to be finalized next year, carbon emissions would be reduced 30 percent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. It is a centerpiece of Obama’s plans to tackle climate change and aims to give the United States more leverage to prod other countries to act when negotiations on a new international treaty resume next year.
But the proposal sets off a complex regulatory process, steeped in politics, in which the 50 states will each determine how to meet customized targets set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The policy change, which will further diminish the role of coal in U.S. electrical production, carries significant political and legal risks.
Although Obama doesn’t need a vote in Congress to approve his plans, lawmakers in both the House and Senate have already vowed to try to block them – including one Democratic lawmaker who faces a difficult re-election this year in coal-dependent West Virginia. Scuttling the rules could be easier if Republicans, who already control the House, take the Senate in November and then the White House in 2016.
Another potential flashpoint: The plan relies heavily on governors agreeing to develop plans to meet the federal standard. If Republican governors refuse to go along, the EPA can create its own plan for a state. But the specifics of how the EPA could force a state to comply with that plan remain murky.
Some states will be allowed to emit more and others less, leading to an overall, nationwide reduction of 30 percent.
Many states that rely heavily on coal will be spared from cutting a full 30 percent. West Virginia, for example, must cut 19 percent by 2030 compared to what the state was emitting in 2012. On the other extreme, New York has a 44 percent target, EPA figures show.
“This is not just about disappearing polar bears or melting ice caps,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said. “This is about protecting our health and our homes. This is about protecting local economies and jobs.”
Initially, Obama wanted each state to submit their plans by June 2016. But the draft proposal shows states could have until 2017 – and 2018, if they join with other states to tackle the problem.
Power plants are the largest U.S. source of greenhouse gases, accounting for about a third of the annual emissions. EPA data show power plants have already reduced carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 13 percent since 2005, meaning they are about halfway to meeting the administration’s goal.
The EPA projected that carrying out the plan would cost up to $8.8 billion annually in 2030, but the actual costs will depend heavily on how states choose to reach their targets. The administration argued that any costs to comply were far outweighed by savings in health costs that the U.S. would realize thanks to reductions in other pollutants such as soot and smog that would accompany a shift away from dirtier fuels.
Environmental groups hailed the proposal, praising both the climate effects and the public health benefits they said would follow. Former Vice President Al Gore, a prominent environmental advocate, called it “the most important step taken to combat the climate crisis in our country’s history.”
But energy advocates sounded the alarm, warning of economic drag. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, called the proposal “a dagger in the heart of the American middle class.”
“If these rules are allowed to go into effect, the administration for all intents and purposes is creating America’s next energy crisis,” said Mike Duncan of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which represents the coal industry.
Options for states to meet the targets include making power plants more efficient, reducing the frequency at which coal-fired power plants supply power to the grid and investing in more renewable, low-carbon sources of energy. States could also enhance programs aimed at reducing demand by making households and businesses more energy-efficient. Each category will have a separate target tailor-made for each state.
Coal once supplied about half the nation’s electricity, but has dropped to 40 percent amid a boom in natural gas and renewable sources such as wind and solar.
The EPA predicted that coal would still remain a leading source of electricity in the U.S., providing over 30 percent of the projected supply.
Obama has already tackled the emissions from the nation’s cars and trucks, announcing rules to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by doubling fuel economy.