EPA Announces 30 by ’30 Regs for Power Plants, Get Ready for the Onslaught!

At 10:30 EST, we watched EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy make the highly anticipated, historic announcement on how power plants will be regulated to address carbon emissions.

Simply called the "Clean Power Plan," EPA’s proposal is the biggest action on climate change ever taken by a US president, says the New York Times, and is the centerpiece of President Obama’s Climate Action PlanPower plants are responsible for 40% of US carbon emissions, our single largest source.  

News leaked beforehand that EPA would shoot for a 25% decline in carbon emissions, but we are pleasantly surprised that the goal is 30% by 2030 – thus many are calling it the 30 By ’30 plan.

The Plan: cut carbon emissions 25% by 2025 and 30% by 2030, from 2005 levels. As a beneficial byproduct, soot, sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide will be simultaneously cut by 25%. In the first year alone, EPA expects 150,000 fewer asthma attacks and 2,100 fewer heart attacks in the US.

How? EPA will set a cap on carbon emissions customized for every state based on how much carbon power plants emitted in 2005. States will have complete flexibility on how they meet the cap:  they can use any combination of power plant regulations with required upgrades (long overdue in many cases); energy efficiency; renewable energy; even implement a carbon tax or cap-and-trade program. They can go it alone or join with other states as is already being done in the Pacific Northwest and Northeast

EPA says the plan will result in $90 billion in climate and health benefits for a cost of $7.3 billion to $8.8 billion to utilities. They  expect electric bills to drop by an average of 8%.

Because power plant emissions fell during the recession – by about 15% between 2005-2012 – choosing 2005 as the benchmark year makes it easier to comply because that’s when emissions were at their height. For utilities that have been cutting emissions, they only have another 15% to go.

Utilities are pleased with the easier target, but in exchange, EPA is seeking a 30% reduction, which they aren’t thrilled about. 

Using 2005 as the base year won’t reduce emissions enough to fulfill President Obama’s pledge to cut US emissions 17% by 2020 – the base year would have to be lower, 2009-2012. 

The EPA could add other regulations, however, to fill the gap, such as capturing methane emissions from fracking operations.
Indeed, many states, such as NY, Virginia, Georgia and Washington, have already exceeded 30% cuts, says Vicki Arroyo, Executive Director of Georgetown Climate Center, which lists carbon reductions of every state.

The next step is for the EPA to hold hearings (planned for July across the country) and accept comments. The comment period has been doubled from the usual 60 days to 120 days. Regulations will be finalized in mid-2015 and states will have until 2016 to submit their plans to EPA.

Obama’s Announcement

President Obama talked about the plan at Washington DC’s Children’s National Medical Center, where he visited children with asthma. To forestall the inevitable attacks from the right, he emphasized the health benefits along with cutting carbon pollution. 

"As president and as a parent, I refuse to condemn our children to a planet that’s beyond fixing," he said. "Right now, there are no national limits to the amount of carbon pollution that existing plants can pump into the air we breathe. None." Less soot and smog will allow people to be much healthier, and as old coal plants close, electric bills will go down because people will be using less power.

Regarding the inevitable pushback from the right, Obama said, "Let’s face it, that’s what they always say. They warned that doing something about the smog choking our cities and acid rain poisoning our lakes would kill business. It didn’t. Our air got cleaner, acid rain was cut dramatically, and our economy kept growing."

He points to the dozen states that already have market-based programs and the 1000 cities that are actively engaged on climate mitigation. "The idea of setting higher standards to cut pollution at our power plants is not new. Its just time for Washington to catch up with the rest of the country."

"The shift to a cleaner energy economy won’t happen overnight, and it will require tough choices along the way. But a low-carbon, clean energy economy can be an engine of growth for decades to come. America will build that engine. America will build the future. A future that’s cleaner, more prosperous, and full of good jobs – a future where we can look our kids in the eye and tell them we did our part to leave them a safer, more stable world."

Reactions From Both Sides – As Expected

"This proposal is an excellent opening bid by the Administration. Our analysis confirms that the significant reductions EPA has proposed can be achieved at minimal cost and without economic disruption.  In fact, EPA’s proposed interim target can be achieved simply by displacing electric generation from the highest-emitting coal plants with electricity from underutilized natural gas plants in operation today," explains Conrad Schneider, Advocacy Director of the Clean Air Task Force.

"If you’re working in the solar or wind industry, you should feel very happy right now. Those are the industries growing faster than the rest of economy," Mike Brune, Executive Director of Sierra Club, told the NY Times. "It’s clear that those are going to be the industries to work in, invest in and watch. They’re about to explode in terms of growth."

Another major reason for power plant regulations is that the US has to show the world it is taking action. Next year, the world comes together once again to forge a treaty on climate change. US leadership is critical for other big emitters to get on board. 

"The decision by President Obama to launch plans to more tightly regulate emissions from power plants will send a good signal to nations everywhere that one of the world’s biggest emitters is taking the future of the planet and its people seriously," says Christiana Figueres, the top climate official at the United Nations. 

Meanwhile, Republicans, the Chamber of Commerce, ALEC, Americans for Prosperity, Heartland, etcetera gave their typical responses. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) says he will immediately introduce legislation to block the rules, warning it will make electricity unaffordable and kill jobs.

Republicans will frame the rules as a "national energy tax."

"If it succeeds in death by regulation, we’ll all be paying a lot more money for electricity – if we can get it," says Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY). "Opponents of EPA carbon rules have said they could have serious impacts on grid reliability as needed coal-fired power plants retire early to avoid having to retrofit." It’s just another front on Obama’s War on Coal, he says. 

"There will be a lot of push back, a lot of hearings, and a lot of lawsuits," says Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY).

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which represents the coal industry, says the rules will kill 2.8 million jobs. This is the group that got caught forging letters in advance of the 2009 cap-and-trade vote  – they were supposedly from civil rights organizations asking Congress to oppose the legislation. 

The National Mining Association has already spent $1 million on ads that show people being shocked as they open their electric bill. Bills will rise 80%, they warn, but fact-checkers call the claims "wholly unsupported" and relying on "bogus, hyped evidence." 

In February, polluters formed the "Partnership for a Better Energy Future," calling it a "do-or-die campaign" to put the cabash on greenhouse gas regulations, way before being released. 

Coal Emissions

Yes, the EPA says, some coal plants will close but that’s because of aging equipment and the fact that the average coal plant is 42 years old. About a third of US coal plants closed in the past few years – the 560 that are left produce 75% of power plant emissions. As natural gas prices rose last year, utilities turned to coal, and US emissions started rising again.

Coal currently provides 39% of US electricity. Even with these regulations, it will supply 30% in 2030. 

What the Final Regulations Might Look Like

After receiving comments – which will likely be about the most appropriate caps and benchmark years – EPA could end up using the average of emissions between 2010-2012. Cuts might be phased in, with less stringent requirements in the early years.

EPA also has to make sure it doesn’t penalize states that have already made significant emissions cuts.

Environmental groups will push for greater emission cuts, on the order of 35-40% by 2020 from 2012 levels, and 50% by 2030 – the amount needed to keep world average temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees C.

Green Groups Prepared

After waiting so long for meaningful action on climate change, environmental groups are prepared for furious opposition. Since 2010, when national cap-and-trade legislation failed and Republicans swept the elections, 10 groups formed the Climate Action Coalition. With its own staff and consultants, 60 groups now participate.

They realize that to win, they must be a united front that galvanizes grassroots action, harking back to successes in 1970s. The group will spend millions on an advertising campaign in support of EPA’s regulations.

In recent years, the environmental community focused on lawsuits, lobbying and scientific evidence, but because climate change is invisible, – unlike the air pollution that sparked the Clean Air Act – it’s been an easy target for the fossil fuel  industry and its ideological allies, says the NY Times. They could  seed doubt in peoples’ minds about the reality of climate change and the reliability of climate science, turning it into a partisan issue.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and League of Conservation Voters are working together to register Latino voters. Sierra Club has activated 100,000 members as volunteers. 

"We’re in a fight to change how our civilization is powered – that’s the crux of the climate change issue. The coal and oil and gas companies are fighting the environmental movement very actively, punching with both fists, and to combat that, the environmental movement needs to be strong," Michael Brune, Executive Director of Sierra Club, told the NY Times.

In 1970, the Clean Air Act became law with a unanimous vote in the Senate and only one "No" vote in the House. It was strengthened under George HW Bush, passing 89-11 in the Senate, including McConnell, who said, "I had to choose between cleaner air and the status quo. I chose cleaner air." Then there’s Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who sponsored cap-and-trade legislation in 2003, 2005 and 2007, until he voted against it in 2010.

Now, even Democrats in Red States facing elections this year are running scared from the Tea Party and fossil fuel interests. Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Senate candidate in Kentucky, says: "Coal keeps the lights on in Kentucky – plain and simple – and I will not stand idle as overreaching regulation adversely impacts jobs and middle-class families." And she was referring to EPA’s regulations on new power plants – those that haven’t been built yet.

"Republicans – and conservative Democrats – have been hesitant to take up the issues on environmentalists’ minds for years, thanks to an American apathy, a changing ethos in the Republican Party and the powerful discontent of many who work in energy, especially those in the coal industry," notes Jaime Fuller, in a Washington Post blog.

A recent poll by Pew Research shows that 46% of Republicans and 70% of the Tea Party say there’s no evidence the earth is  warming. Americans generally don’t prioritize action on climate change – out of 20 priorities, it comes in at #18. Still, a majority from both parties support EPA power plant regulations and want action on climate change – 74% of Democrats; 67% of Independents; 52% of Republicans.

Read our article, More Proof We CAN Get Emissions Down Fast.

Here is the Clean Power Plan website:

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