The Obama administration is proposing stronger regulations to limit climate-changing emissions from U.S. power plants.The proposed pollution rules will help protect the nation’s health, but also put the United States in a stronger leadership position to curb global warming.
In his most recent address to the nation, President Obama called the new rule critical.
Domestic Emissions of Greenhouse Gasses, 2012
“Today about 40 percent of America’s carbon pollution comes from power plants," he said. "But right now there are no national limits to the amount of carbon pollution that existing plants can pump into the air we breathe.”
The new Clean Power Plan targets the nation’s more than 600 coal-fired power plants, the single largest source of carbon pollution in the United States. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy said it is a moral obligation to act for the sake of public health.
"When we do, we will turn climate risk into business opportunity, we will spur innovation and investment and we will be a world-leading clean energy economy,” she said.
The plan would require a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2030. McCarthy says a flexible approach is built into how states comply.
“Each state is different, so each goal and each path can be different," she said.
The proposal offers a broad array of actions, says Kevin Kennedy, who directs the U.S. Climate Initiative for the World Resources Institute.
“The flexibility that she is talking about is the flexibility to look at the entire electricity system," he said "So, that you can look at energy efficiency. You can look at renewables. You can look at switching fuels from coal to natural gas, making more use of existing natural gas plants that have been sitting relatively idle for the last decade.”
Coal plants supply nearly one-third the U.S. electric supply. The new rule could shut down plants, eliminate jobs and raise electric rates, says Jeff Holmstead, a former EPA official who represents the coal industry for the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani. He says higher electric rates could also push industrial operations abroad.
“And to some extent we are seeing that happen already in Europe, where Europe has had almost no investment from heavy industry and heavy industries that formerly were in Europe are moving to China or India and in some cases even the United States because power prices here today are significantly lower than they are in Europe,” he said.
Holmstead says the administration is wrong to put a regulation in place that critics say does little to solve the climate problem. He suggests investment in a technological fix would go further to address the issue.
“And until we can figure out a way that to allow countries around the world to have the benefits we enjoy from reliable affordable power, without coal, it is not going to make any difference at all to impose expensive requirements in the United States,” he said.
Kennedy agrees that rules alone are not enough, but says the plan is an important signal to the global community that the United States is taking a leadership role in the battle against climate change.
“That makes it much more likely that you will be able to get a strong international agreement next year, where you would expect to see China and India and other countries coming to the table more willing to think about reductions on their own, now that the United States is seriously acting," said Kennedy.
After a year-long comment period, the EPA rules will be finalized. A legal challenge from the coal power industry is expected to follow. U.N. negotiators hope to have a new global warming treaty in place by 2015.