Jun 2 11:12 AM

EPA carbon rule: ‘First step,’ but from where?

A plume of exhaust extends from the Mitchell Power Station, a coal-fired power plant built along the Monongahela River, southwest of Pittsburgh, 2013.
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

The Obama administration released changes to the way the government regulates CO2 emissions Monday, saying new rules will cut U.S. emissions by 30 percent by 2030.

The rule will not be finalized until next year, but represents the first attempt to set a national limit for carbon dioxide, one of the main contributors to global warming. The Environmental Protection Agency’s “Clean Power Plan” will directly affect U.S. power plants, especially those that use coal, “setting state-specific rate-based” goals for carbon emissions.

The administration first determined that greenhouse gasses posed a danger to human health in 2009, and were empowered to impose statandards under the Clean Air Act of 1970, but it has been a much-delayed and politically fraught process to get to today’s proposal.

Environmentalists and climate watchers have called the plan a “good first step,” but one that falls short of what is necessary to head off much of the future problems predicted to come with rising temperatures resulting from high CO2 emissions. Since today’s release starts a public comment period, those concerned say they will push for a more ambitious final rule.

At stake are what year is defined as the baseline from which reduction will be measured, as well as whether the EPA will use the authority assumed in this rule to regulate emissions of other greenhouse gasses, and what moves the U.S. might make to get other countries on board.

The baseline year is especially important to U.S. producers. Traditional energy providers would favor measuring from 2005, the high point of domestic CO2 emissions. But the economic slowdown starting in 2008 significantly decreased output, and the fracking boom drove down natural gas prices and encouraged a shift from coal- to lower-carbon gas-fired electricity generation.

By way of example, the U.S. needs to reduce GHG emissions by 25 percent to meet targets set in Copenhagen in 2009, but that’s 25 percent from current levels, which represents a significantly steeper cut than 30 percent from a 2005 baseline.

Still, environmentalists this morning seem to be sounding an optimistic note, hoping Obama can take this U.S. move to the world to restart meaningful negotiations on global pollution standards. Some also point to other moves that could be made by the EPA, such as more tightly regulating methane leaks in the extraction and shipping of natural gas and fracked oil. Methane is, liter for liter, a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.

And the environmental community still holds out hope that the comment period in the rule-making process will encourage a stricter standard.

“The key will be how they solicit comments on more ambitious targets,” said David Hawkins, Natural Resources Defense Council’s director of climate programs, to Grist. “We need an open mind on their part to consider evidence we can do better.”

Environmental experts generally agree that more ambitious targets are possible, especially if the EPA is going to make the rules extend all the way to 2030. Since technologies to produce energy more cleanly keep getting better and cheaper, the targets should grow significantly more ambitious over the course of the next decade.

“We’ll be pushing for 2020 reductions of at least 35 percent below 2005 levels, ramping up to more ambitious targets later in the decade,” says Hawkins.

The proposed rule mirrors a plan previously pitched by the NRDC.

Environmental watchdog Friends of the Earth was more pointed in its concerns:

President Obama has taken the most significant step by any American president to combat climate disruption. While a step forward, this rule simply doesn’t go far enough to put us on the right path. The science on climate change has become clearer and more dire, requiring more aggressive action from the president.

Friends of the Earth will work with our members and activists to significantly strengthen this rule, and push back against the President’s misguided “all of the above” energy policy. Averting the larger and more permanent effects of climate disruption requires an immediate transition to clean renewable energy; paired with keeping as many fossil fuels in the ground as possible.

As detailed last week, industry groups are already primed for a fight. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce plans to release its take on the proposed carbon rule on Wednesday, but made clear last week they will fight it. Coal producers and regional energy companies that still rely heavily on coal are also on the air and the Internet with ads warning of increased utility bills.

But the state-by-state plan in question much resembles a program put in place years ago in Massachusetts under then-Governor Mitt Romney. EPA chief Gina McCarthy was Romney’s top environmental advisor back then. Similar warnings of price spikes and economic slowdowns were floated then, but did not materialize.

“There are still special interest skeptics who cry the sky is falling,” said the EPA’s McCarthy in the Washington Post. “They deliberately ignore the risks, overestimate the costs, and undervalue the benefits.”

The proposed rules would also encourage moves toward efficiency and conservation, which would reduce costs to consumers in the long run. It is also predicted that reductions in carbon emissions would result in decreased levels of other pollutants, such as particulate soot and sulfur dioxide, resulting in considerable health savings and fewer premature deaths.

Though the rule will not even be finalized before the November midterm elections, today’s announcement already promises to be a political rallying point. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has called the plan an “national energy tax,” referencing a rhetorical strategy that helped beat back a move for national cap-and-trade legislation during Obama’s first term. The GOP labeled it “cap and tax.”

Democrats, on the other hand, are using the expected corporate blowback as the leading edge of a fundraising push. “As I write this, powerful interests on the other side are lining up their dirty budgets to try to tear this down,” wrote former White House Chief of Staff Jim Messina in an email blast from Organizing for Action, a group that evolved out of the Obama presidential campaign. The email asks subscribers to “stand with the president.”


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