The U.S. government rolled out a plan Monday to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 30% by 2030, a centerpiece of President Barack Obama's efforts to reduce the pollution linked to global warming.
The rule, expected to be final next year, sets in motion one of the most significant actions on global warming in U.S. history. The Obama administration hopes the step will get other countries to act when negotiations on a new international treaty resume next year.
Power plants are the largest source of greenhouse gases in the U.S., accounting for about a third of the annual emissions that make the country the second largest contributor to global warming on the planet.
Yet the rule carries significant political and legal risks. It will help further diminishing coal's role in producing U.S. electricity. Coal, which once supplied about half the nation's electricity, has dropped to 40% as it has been replaced by booming supplies of natural gas and renewable sources such as wind and solar.
Republicans are certain to attack the regulation rigorously, sending jitters among Democratic lawmakers up for re-election this November in energy-producing states.
Exactly how states will meet customized targets likely will be pushed to the next administration. States could have until 2017 to submit a plan to cut power plant pollution, and 2018 if they join with other states to tackle the problem, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's 645-page proposal. An executive order issued last summer had set a June 2016 deadline for state plans.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy was expected to stress in remarks delivered at EPA headquarters later Monday that the rule would be "ambitious, but achievable."
"The glue that holds this plan together—and the key to making it work—is that each state's goal is tailored to its own circumstances, and states have the flexibility to reach their goal in whatever works best for them," McCarthy said, according to prepared remarks released in advance.
Despite concluding in 2009 that greenhouse gases endanger human health and welfare, a finding that triggered their regulation under the 1970 Clean Air Act, it has taken years for the administration to take on the nation's fleet of power plants. In December 2010, the Obama administration announced a "modest pace" for setting greenhouse gas standards for power plants, setting a May 2012 deadline.
Obama put them on the fast track last summer when he announced his climate action plan and a renewed commitment to climate change after the issue went dormant during his re-election campaign.
"Today, the president made good on his promise to American families that his administration would tackle the climate crisis, and clean up and modernize the way we power our country," said Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune.
EPA data shows that the nation's power plants have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 13% since 2005, or about halfway to the goal the administration will set Monday. The agency is aiming to have about 26% cut by 2020.
But with coal-fired power plants already beleaguered by cheap natural gas prices and other environmental regulations, experts said getting there won't be easy. The EPA is expected to offer a range of options to states to meet targets that will be based on where they get their electricity and how much carbon dioxide they emit in the process.
"Today's proposal from the EPA could singlehandedly eliminate this competitive advantage by removing reliable and abundant sources of energy from our nation's energy mix," Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, said in a statement issued Sunday.
While some states will be allowed to emit more and others less, overall the reduction will be 30% nationwide.
The options include making power plants more efficient, reducing the frequency at which coal-fired power plants supply power to the grid, and investing in more renewable, low-carbon sources of energy. In addition, states could enhance programs aimed at reducing demand by making households and businesses more energy-efficient. Each of those categories will have a separate target tailor-made for each state.
Obama has already tackled the emissions from the nation's cars and trucks, announcing rules to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by doubling fuel economy. That standard will reduce carbon dioxide by more than 2 billion tons over the life of vehicles made in model years 2012-25. The power plant proposal will prevent about 430 million tons of carbon dioxide from reaching the atmosphere, based on the 30% figure and what power plants have already reduced since 2005.