California Adopts Sweeping Plan To Combat Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The Obama administration on Monday proposed a groundbreaking rule on fossil-fuel power plants that it said would lead to a 30 percent reduction in U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions by 2030 from 2005 levels.

In introducing the draft rule, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy leaned heavily on the word “flexibility,” insisting that by giving states wide leeway, the overall target was plenty achievable. “The glue that holds the plan together is that each state’s goal is tailored to its own circumstances,” McCarthy said.

Senior agency officials explained in a media conference call that although the rule’s expected outcome was framed in terms of a 30 percent emissions cut from 2005 – when U.S. electricity sector carbon emissions were 17 percent higher than in 2013 – they had not used 2005 as a “baseline.” Instead, the officials said, the agency examined each state’s power profile as of 2012 and then applied an analysis of “sensible and reasonable things” that could be done in the individual states by 2025 and 2030.

The result is widely varying proposed emissions rate targets. For example: The EPA is telling California, where coal provides less than 1 percent of electricity, to come up with a plan that cuts its emissions from 698 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour of electricity in 2012 to 537 lb/MWh in 2030. Meanwhile, Missouri, which gets 79 percent of its electricity from coal, would be allowed an emissions rate of 1,544 lb/MWh in 2030 – down from 1,936 lb/MWh, but still nearly three times the California rate.

The EPA said that even under the new regulations, some 30 percent of U.S. electricity could come from coal plants in 2030, compared to about 40 percent now. Renewables – not counting hydroelectric power – were projected to rise from around 5 percent of generation to 9 percent as a result.

Nevertheless, in a press release, the National Mining Association said the EPA rule would result in more expensive and less reliable power “especially for those in states that rely on low cost electricity from coal.” And West Virginia Reps. Nick Rahall, a Democrat, and David McKinley, a Republican, said they would introduce legislation to block the rule.

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Environmental groups and climate activists pooh-poohed any dire forecasts and praised the plan; the Sierra Club said that “every time big polluters have said the sky is falling, the sky has gotten cleaner,” and Al Gore, who has at times voiced skepticism about the administration’s commitment on climate change, called the plan “the most important step taken to combat the climate crisis in the country’s history.” A Washington Post poll conducted over the weekend and released on Monday found 70 percent of those surveyed supported requirements similar to those being proposed.

In forming its targets, the EPA said it considered four basic “building blocks” states could use: making fossil fuel power plants more efficient; using low-emitting power sources, like combined cycle natural gas, more frequently; using more renewables; and improving efficiency. Now, in building their required plans, the states will be open to take advantage of a range of tools, the EPA said, individually or working with neighboring states – demand-side energy efficiency programs, renewable energy standards, plant retirements and carbon trading programs among them.

While the proposed actions in isolation would result in a small reduction in global carbon emissions, the EPA said they would yield significant health benefits to the nation – avoiding up to 6,660 premature deaths and 150,000 asthma attacks in children – while giving the U.S. a leadership position in the fight against climate change.

“The science is clear. The risks are clear. And the high costs of climate inaction keep piling up,” McCarthy said.

The proposal will go through a 120-day comment period, with the aim to finalize a rule by June next year. States will then have a year to complete their plans, although the EPA said it would consider requests for one-year extensions from individual states and two-year extensions on multi-state plans.

By Pete Danko