Emissions spew out of a large stack at the coal-fired Morgantown Generating Station on May 29 in Newburg, Md. / Mark Wilson, Getty Images
Taking a historic step to fight climate change, the Obama administration proposed a plan Monday that aims to slash carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants 30% by 2030 and could accelerate the nation's shift away from coal.
The Environmental Protection Agency plan, which is President Obama's largest climate effort so far, could help the United States prod other countries like China to pledge similar emissions cuts as part of a new international treaty that's slate for negotiation next year in Paris.
The controversial 645-page plan, expected to trigger legal challenges, sets different reduction targets for each state and gives them flexibility in how to achieve them. Yet it aims for a 30% national reduction of heat-trapping CO² emissions, from 2005 levels, by 2030 -- an amount that the EPA says is equal to annual emissions from powering more than half of U.S. homes.
"This is not just about disappearing polar bears or melting ice caps," said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. "This is about protecting our health and our homes. This is about protecting local economies and jobs." McCarthy said the proposal will spur innovation and create jobs.
Some states that rely heavily on coal-fired power plants will have lower emission targets by 2030 than others that do not. For example, West Virginia must cut 19%,compared to its 2012 emissions, while Ohio must cut 28%, Kentucky 18% and Wyoming, 19%. In contrast, New York has a 44% target although it can get credit for steps it's already taken to lower emissions.
Thwarted by Congress' inability to pass a bill to lower carbon emissions, Obama is pushing his own approach. Last June, he asked the EPA to use its authority under the Clean Air Act to limit power plant emissions, which account for the largest share - nearly 40% - of total U.S. emissions. Coal-fired facilities could be hardest hit, because they emit more carbon than other power plants.
The rule will not take effect for at least two more years. Obama has asked the EPA to finalize it in June 2015 and initially wanted each state to submit its plan by June 2016. The EPA proposal gives states until 2017 or, if they make joint efforts with other states, 2018.
Environmental groups welcomed the proposal, citing its both its climate and public health benefits. 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."
These rules would go far beyond an EPA proposal last year to limit emissions from new plants, and their impact will also exceed the administration's 2011 requirement that new cars and light trucks double fuel efficiency by 2025.
But opponents are already lining up against the proposal. On Monday, Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D- W.V., who is facing a tough re-election battle, said he will work with his state's GOP colleague, Rep. David McKinley, to introduce legislation to stop both the new rule for existing power plants as well as the last year's proposal for future plants.
"This new regulation threatens our economy and does so with an apparent disregard for the livelihoods of our coal miners and thousands of families throughout West Virginia," Rahall said.
Last week, the Chamber of Commerce released a report saying such regulation could raise consumer prices for electricity, kill jobs and slow economic growth. In the GOP Saturday radio address, Wyoming's Sen. Mike Enzi said the Obama administration has "set out to kill coal and its 800,000 jobs." If it succeeds, he warned, "we'll all be paying a lot more money for electricity - if we can get it."
McCarthy said critics have "time after time ... cried wolf to protect their own agenda." She said their dire predictions about the economic costs of reducing urban smog in the 1960s and acid rain in the 1990s have been proven wrong.
"We can innovate our way to a better future," McCarthy said. "From the light bulb to the locomotive; from photovoltaic cells to cellphones, America has always turned small steps into giant leaps."
Obama said Saturday that the proposal will reduce air pollution, improve health and spur a clean energy economy that can be "an engine of growth." The administration says its proposal will save more than $90 billion in climate and health benefits and will avoid up to 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks annually.
The EPA says it expects coal, which now provides 37% of the nation's electricity - down from 52% in 2000 - will still provide 30% of U.S. power by 2030. It says the increasing retirements of coal-fired plants, which now average 42 years, are because of economics such as the plunging price of natural gas - not its proposal.
Coal-fired power plants have already been closing. DOE data indicate the number has fallen from 633 in 2002 to 557 in 2012 and it expects 60 gigawatts of coal-fired power - one-fifth of total U.S. coal capacity in 2012 - will retire by 2020.
In contrast, natural gas has seen its share of U.S. electricity generation nearly double, from 16% in 2000 to 30% in 2012. McCarthy said U.S. wind energy has tripled and solar has grown ten-fold since 2009 - two sources that she says can help states meet carbon emissions cuts.
"This rule would accelerate that shift" away from coal, says Kyle Aarons, a senior fellow at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a non-profit group.
It could force the retirement of at least one-third of the nation's coal-fired power plants by 2030, says Mike Duncan, president and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. "It creates a reliability and affordability problem" for U.S. consumers, he says, adding higher electric prices will hurt the U.S. manufacturing base and push jobs overseas.
The ultimate impact will "come down to costs," says Richard J. Campbell, a specialist in energy policy at the non-partisan Congressional Research Service. He says states will look for the most cost-effective ways to meet the emissions targets, adding: "Retirements (of coal plants) will definitely be on the table."
Even coal-reliant states should be able to meet the goals, says Dan Bakal director of electric power for Ceres, a non-profit group that promotes corporate sustainability. He says they've yet deploy many options, including the trading of pollution credits, that states with low carbon emission rates have already taken.
"The energy sector is in transition anyway" and the EPA rule will help shape that shift towards a low-carbon energy future, says Tim Profeta, director of Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environment Policy Solutions. "It's not unsympathetic to coal-heavy states," he says.
As coal use and total energy consumption has declined, so too have total U.S. carbon emissions, which have fallen about 10% since 2005. DOE forecasts a slight rise in the near future without new emission caps. In 2009, Obama pledged to lower U.S. emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020.,
The nation's power plants are required to limited emissions of arsenic, mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particle pollution, but they currently have no federal caps on carbon dioxide releases.
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