Obama slashes greenhouse gas emissions from power plants

The EPA’s historic Clean Power Plan makes a big push for renewables.


President Barack Obama has just made the biggest contribution to the fight against climate change of any U.S. president by requiring the electricity sector to cut nearly one-third of its greenhouse gas emissions over the next 15 years.

“We’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change. We’re the last generation that can do something about it,” Obama said Monday in a White House , announcing the EPA's much-anticipated Clean Power Plan. “I don’t want millions of people’s lives disrupted and this world more dangerous because we didn’t do something about it. That’d be shameful of us.”

The president cited intensifying natural disasters such as drought, floods and forest fire along with rising sea levels and temperatures as justifications for an Environmental Protection Agency that sets the first-ever limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The administration projects that it will cut emissions 32 percent by 2030 compared to 2005 by requiring states either to set up programs to cut pollution from their power plants or sign up for a federal program.


The president said the rule will help the U.S. forge a strong global climate change treaty at the end of the year and keep America on track to meet its international commitments to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and to 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

The plan cuts pollution slightly more than a proposal for the Clean Power Plan that came out last year, because renewable generation has become more affordable and is making bigger gains than anticipated. “Our country’s clean energy transition is happening faster than anybody anticipated,” EPA administrator Gina McCarthy told reporters in a conference call on Sunday. “The accelerating trends towards clean power and the growing success of energy efficiency efforts means carbon emissions are already going down, and the pace is picking up.”

The EPA projects that in 2030, the share of the nation’s electricity produced with coal, the dirtiest source of power, will drop to 27 percent, down from last year.  Electricity from utility-scale solar and wind projects is projected to double from 2013 to 2030.

The Clean Power plan cuts pollution more deeply than a proposal that came out last year because renewable generation has become more affordable and is making bigger gains than anticipated.
Joshua Winchell, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

To encourage faster adoption of renewable power and energy efficiency, the plan rewards early action “because time is not on our side,” Obama said.

The so-called program is one of many differences between the rule and the proposal that came out a year ago. Others include:

  • An additional two years, until 2022, for states to meet their first targets, which responds to states’ concerns that earlier targets would make it difficult to invest in wind and solar projects.
  • A safety valve that will help avert any unanticipated risks to the reliable supply of electricity.

The EPA the rule will cost $8.4 billion. But its benefits are estimated to be four to seven times greater, because it would avoid thousands of premature deaths, millions of asthma attacks and other impacts of power plant pollution and climate change. The EPA also estimates that the rule will save average American families nearly $85 on their annual energy bills in 2030.

States will have the option of crafting their own plans to reduce emissions or participating in a . Tribes that have large fossil fuel power plants, including the Navajo Nation and Ute, will be covered by the federal rule unless they apply to be treated like states and develop their own plans. If states fail to create their own plans, they will be covered by the federal plan by default.

States and tribes have , which the EPA determined based on a complicated analysis that included many factors, including how much of a state’s electricity now comes from coal or natural gas.

The EPA’s rule was less stringent for some Western states, including , than its previous proposal. But officials from most states said they needed time to digest the complicated rule before they could comment. “We’re still just trying to get our heads around it,” said Eric Massey, director of the air quality division in the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

, executive director and chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, told HCN: “I think it’s a challenging plan, but an obtainable plan.”

The changes from the proposal, such as the extra time, will make it easier for Colorado to adopt more wind and solar power rather than burning more natural gas, which contributes to the state’s air pollution problems, he said.

“We value our environment and our health in Colorado,” Wolk said. “We’ve had wildfire and we’ve had floods. So I think the reality of climate change has hit Coloradans.”

As HCN has reported, Western states had many concerns about the EPA’s proposal, including how it treated states that export electricity and hydropower, which might be impacted by climate change. Western states have been meeting regularly to share strategies for complying with the federal rule.

The rule is just one of several major initiatives Obama has taken to fight climate change, including reducing the greenhouse gas emissions from . The president had wanted Congress to craft an economy-wide legislative solution to climate change. But since Republicans won control of the House in 2010, the issue has been a nonstarter. A did pass in the House in 2009, but stalled in the Senate, although Democrats held the majority at the time.

Even before the new rule was released, Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, urged states to opt out. Most congressional Republicans oppose the new limits on greenhouse gas pollution.

“The Obama administration has no concern for costs, no concept of reality and no respect for the rule of law,” said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma. “President Obama, and his EPA know that Americans do not support his costly carbon mandates.”

But Sen. Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts, said Republicans and the coal industry have themselves to blame:

“Five years ago, when coal companies had the opportunity to support the , they chose regulation over legislation. They helped kill the bill and put us on the path toward these new rules.”

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC Correspondent.  

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