On Monday, President Obama unveiled the latest — and likely greatest — emissions reduction policy since he announced his Climate Action Plan last year: new rules to limit carbon dioxide pollution from existing power plants. With power plants accounting for around one-third of U.S. emissions, these rules will address the country’s single-largest source of greenhouse gas pollution.
Along with standards for new power plants, rules addressing methane emissions, and measures promoting energy efficiency, the forthcoming standards illustrate the way in which the president is using existing legislative authority to put the United States on a path toward meeting short-term and long-term climate commitments.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of misconceptions on what these standards are designed to achieve, the impact they will have and why they’re so important. This blog highlights some of the most important aspects of these crucial actions.
EPA is legally required to develop and enforce regulations to protect the public from air-borne pollutants under the Clean Air Act, which Congress passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities in 1970, and further strengthened with subsequent amendments. Scientists agree that carbon pollution threatens American public health and welfare, and the Supreme Court affirmed in 2007 that the EPA has an obligation to protect the public from that threat. Currently we limit how much mercury, arsenic, soot and other air pollution power plants can dump into the air, but there are no limits on carbon pollution. EPA is doing now what it has done for decades — setting common-sense limits on harmful pollutants.
Coal can be part of the future U.S. energy mix, but as the most carbon-intensive electricity source, it’s imperative that it rein in its pollution. Like other industries, coal can adapt by deploying technology to reduce its carbon footprint.
The U.S. power sector has been moving away from coal for years. It has accounted for only 5 percent of new capacity built since 2000, and only a handful of new coal plants are planned or under construction. Several of those will be outfitted with carbon capture technology.
Some pundits point to public health or environmental standards for the decline in coal industry jobs, but actually, the coal industry is using fewer miners to produce the same amount of coal. While coal jobs decreased by half since 1983, coal production in Kentucky and West Virginia held steady. New technology and techniques have driven this long-term trend.
The power plant rules also have the potential to create jobs in the efficiency and renewable industries. Studies have shown that these industries support more jobs per megawatt-hour of electricity generation than fossil fuel industries.
States are demonstrating that clean energy and efficiency policies create economic benefits and save electricity consumers money. For example, one study found that reducing Arkansas’s energy consumption by only 8 percent by 2020 would save consumers $1.8 billion, an average of $303 per household in that year. In Minnesota, the Department of Commerce found that the average cost of reducing electricity demand through the state’s Conservation Improvement Program is at least three times lower than building new generation from other energy sources. And studies by the Midwest Independent Service Operator (MISO) and the Illinois and Ohio Public Utility Commissions, among others, have found that increasing wind resources throughout the Midwest region will drive electricity prices down for customers.
The grid is already able to handle more than 30 percent renewable generation in many places across the country. Over time, improved transmission and storage capabilities will allow for much more. Iowa, Colorado and Texas, for example, have absorbed a significant amount of new renewable energy supply in the last decade with no reliability issues. Furthermore, a recent report from the Analysis Group says that “reliability concerns are misplaced,” and that the president and EPA both acknowledge that emissions reductions from the power sector cannot jeopardize the reliable supply of electricity.
Opponents of U.S. action on climate change often point to perceived inaction by other major emitters, notably China. Yet China is doing more to reduce its emissions than many realize. In 2013, China was once again the world’s No. 1 investor in renewable energy, with $54.2 billion, or 21 percent of the world’s total. And last year, China installed 12 GW of solar photovoltaic projects, 50 percent more than any country previously had installed in a single year. Other large emitters— such as Brazil and the European Union — are moving forward as well.
Many countries are waiting to see how determined the United States will be in setting reduction targets. A level of ambition that helps the United States meet its short-term climate goal (reducing emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020) and that lays out a longer-term trajectory for even deeper cuts will send a powerful signal to the rest of the world. It will show that the country is prepared to do its part in helping to avoid the worst impacts of a changing climate.
In the face of increased sea level rise, dangerous heat waves and drought and costly extreme weather events, it’s clear that the impacts of climate change are already here. Significant emissions cuts are needed now to reduce the impacts we will see in the future. As the largest source of U.S. emissions, setting carbon pollution limits on power plants is a reasonable and essential step to address climate change.
With the right level of ambition, this new federal safeguard will not only curb power sector emissions. It also may spur the kind of innovation that will power America with clean energy in the 21st century.