US carbon cuts will leave world ‘safer and more stable’ says Obama

Obama’s climate rules show international leadership, but environmentalists will push for tougher targets

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By John Upton in Chicago

U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration proposed an historic yet arguably modest pollution rule for the nation’s greatest source of greenhouse gases on Monday.

The rule was crafted to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s existing fleet of coal- and natural gas-burning power plants.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan proposal, that power plants should reduce climate-changing emissions by 26 percent by 2020 compared with 2005 levels, triggered responses that ranged from merriment to mild disappointment to corporate indignation.

By 2030, the draft rule would mandate that the emissions be cut by 30 percent compared with 2005 levels.

The proposal is built on four major building blocks. It calls for retrofitting power plants with cleaner technology, switching from dirtier fuel sources to cleaner ones, raising levels of renewable energy generation, and improving energy efficiency.

States will be charged with mandating the reductions after the rule is finalized.

Obama described the proposal as a “sensible, state-based plan” during a telephone press call with reporters on Monday afternoon.

States will have flexibility in how they comply with the required pollution reductions, such as through carbon trading programs and by mandating minimal levels of renewable energy in the power that’s sold by utilities.

The U.S. has long had pollution rules in place for toxic chemicals produced by the power sector. Yet carbon dioxide pollution from its thousands of power plants, some of them built more than a half a century ago, has not been regulated. Obama highlighted that regulatory inconsistency during Monday’s call.

“The essence of the plan that the EPA is presenting makes sure that we’re finally doing the same with carbon,” Obama said.

“Since power plants are responsible for about 40 percent of America’s carbon pollution, these new standards are going to help us leave our children a safer and more stable world.”

Global significance

A new global climate change agreement is to be finalized in Paris late next year, and Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, was among the leaders worldwide who welcomed America’s expanding foray into climate action.

The U.S. is the second-largest source of climate-changing pollution in the world, behind only China, where emissions are elevated because its factories are major manufacturers of goods consumed elsewhere.

The U.S. was among the few states to not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and its decades of climate inaction have made meaningful international cooperation on global warming difficult.

“The decision by President Obama to launch plans to more tightly regulate emissions from power plants will send a good signal to nations everywhere,” Figueres said in a statement Sunday, as basic details of the proposal became public. “I fully expect action by the United States to spur others in taking concrete action.”

The regulations are the most significant yet in the wake of a 2007 legal victory for progressive states and environmentalists, which was secured during the presidency of Pres. George W. Bush, requiring that the EPA regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act.

Monday’s proposal continues to make good on years of climate change rhetoric by Obama, whose State Department has lately been pressuring other nations, including developing countries, to reduce their own emissions.

Last year, the administration issued climate rules for existing power plants, and it has been striking agreements with China to reduce emissions.

The U.S. House of Representatives has thwarted Obama-led efforts to introduce a national carbon cap-and-trade program, but such programs have been launched by coalitions of states on the east and west coasts. The new power plant rules would not require any approval Congress.

Environmentalists respond

The proposed rule was heartily welcomed by leading environmental groups. But those groups also indicated that they would pressure the government to take bolder steps.

The EPA will accept public comments for four months on its proposal, and it plans to schedule four public hearings during the Northern Hemisphere summer.

“This is a historic step – we’re very pleased that EPA and President Obama have pushed this forward,” David Doniger, a climate policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an influential NGO that has been pressuring the U.S. to introduce rules similar to those announced on Monday, told RTCC.

“We’re going to provide analysis to show you can do even more, and we’re going to push for the strongest possible standard.”

Obama's new climate laws are likely to face a tough fight from a hostile Congress (Pic: White House/Flickr)

Obama’s new climate laws are likely to face a tough fight from a hostile Congress (Pic: White House/Flickr)

America’s power industry has been shifting away from coal in favor of energy from fracked natural gas and from renewable sources in recent years, spurred by tightening air quality regulations and lower costs.

The proposed new rule is expected to accelerate that transition. The EPA estimates its proposal would reduce soot and smog pollution by 25 percent during the next 16 years, and that it would lower power bills by mandating more efficient power generation.

Resistance

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents many of the country’s biggest corporations, including power plant operators, fossil fuel companies, and utilities, sounded alarm bells last week.

It argued in a report the new rule would increase overall power bills by hundreds of billions of dollars by 2030 and that it would hobble the economy. The EPA quickly criticized the chamber’s estimates, describing them as “irresponsible speculation.”

On Monday, the chamber repeated its claims, saying that it “will be actively participating in EPA’s input process on these regulations, and will be educating our members and affiliates about their impacts.”

Obama addressed such critics of environmental regulations during Monday’s call, arguing that the new rule would help propel the economy forward – not hold it back.

“You will from critics who say the same thing they always say; that these guidelines will kill jobs or crush the economy,” Obama said. “What we’ve seen every time is that these claims are debunked when you actually give workers and businesses the tools and the incentive they need to innovate. When Americas are called on to innovate, that’s what we do.”

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