Obama’s EPA Takes Aim at Dirty Power Plants

The new rules would clean up the energy sector by 2030, but have sparked bipartisan outrage already.

By , a deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
Chip Somodevilla - Getty
Chip Somodevilla - Getty
Chip Somodevilla - Getty

The Obama administration proposed its most ambitious measures yet to fight climate change, laying out a plan on Monday to slash greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 30 percent in 2030. The proposal unleashed an avalanche of criticism from conservatives and some business groups and plenty of applause from environmentalists.

The guidelines, laid out in a 645-page rule, mark the administration's biggest step toward reining in greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector, which accounts for about 40 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, the key drivers of climate change. The proposal is the capstone to years of incremental climate change regulations passed by the Environmental Protection Agency, including new fuel economy standards for cars and tough emissions standards for new power plants that have become the Obama administration's only way to tackle climate change in the face of GOP opposition. But the new rules also mark a departure from previous regulations: The EPA set national targets for the power sector, leaving each state to figure out how best to meet them.

The rules will take several years to become final and won't be finished until after President Barack Obama leaves office. The EPA expects to have the final version of the power plant standards ready by June 2015, with states to present their plans one year later. The EPA said it will take one year to review those plans, and some states could get an extension until 2017 or 2018 to present their detailed blueprints.

The Obama administration proposed its most ambitious measures yet to fight climate change, laying out a plan on Monday to slash greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 30 percent in 2030. The proposal unleashed an avalanche of criticism from conservatives and some business groups and plenty of applause from environmentalists.

The guidelines, laid out in a 645-page rule, mark the administration’s biggest step toward reining in greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector, which accounts for about 40 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, the key drivers of climate change. The proposal is the capstone to years of incremental climate change regulations passed by the Environmental Protection Agency, including new fuel economy standards for cars and tough emissions standards for new power plants that have become the Obama administration’s only way to tackle climate change in the face of GOP opposition. But the new rules also mark a departure from previous regulations: The EPA set national targets for the power sector, leaving each state to figure out how best to meet them.

The rules will take several years to become final and won’t be finished until after President Barack Obama leaves office. The EPA expects to have the final version of the power plant standards ready by June 2015, with states to present their plans one year later. The EPA said it will take one year to review those plans, and some states could get an extension until 2017 or 2018 to present their detailed blueprints.

The EPA proposal mandates a 30 percent average reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the utility sector in 2030 compared to 2005 levels. That means the new standards are not as tough as many environmentalists hoped because in the last decade the United States has already cut power sector emissions by about 10 percent. The EPA said states could use a combination of more efficient power plants, different types of power generation, and energy efficiency to meet the new targets.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy presented the new standards, saying that the United States has a "moral obligation to act on climate, and when we do, we’ll turn climate risk into business opportunity, we’ll spur innovation and investment, and we’ll build a world-leading clean energy economy." She added that the health benefits of cleaning up the power sector, by pushing coal-fired plants into retirement, for example, could provide $90 billion in economic benefits by 2030.

Critics of the proposal, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have warned that complying with the new standards could cost as much as $50 billion annually. Others claim the new standards will raise electricity prices and threaten the country’s supply of power.

"The president’s plan is nuts, there’s really no more succinct way to describe it," said House speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in a statement. He urged the Senate to pass legislation already approved by the House that would block the EPA rules.

Mary Landrieu (D-La.), chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, blasted the EPA rules in a statement, saying, "Congress should set the terms, goals and timeframe" for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The administration used executive action because Congress failed to pass climate legislation in 2010, and since then political polarization has prevented any other climate bill from advancing.

Other top lawmakers crystallized the main concerns still dogging the proposal. "For years, I have expressed concern that EPA’s unilateral regulations will come at a high cost and harm the affordability and reliability of our energy supply," said Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, the Senate energy panel’s ranking Republican.

McCarthy dismissed both fears, saying any price rises would be tiny –"the price of a gallon of milk a month"– and arguing that the nation’s power supply would not be threatened.

"If anything, what threatens reliability and causes blackouts is devastating extreme weather fueled by climate change," she said.

Keith Johnson is a deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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