Obama has said he wants the existing plant rule in place by the time a new president takes the oath of office in January 2017. After the rule is announced Monday, a one-year comment and review period will begin, after which, perhaps with tweaks, the rule will be implemented. Given the gravity of the climate change situation, that 2017 date might seem to be an unneeded delay. But, actually, given the opposition, it's optimistic.
Both emissions rules have been in the works since the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2007 that the EPA has a mandate to control greenhouse emissions, including CO2, under the Clean Air Act. In short, the Court ruled that controlling CO2 emissions isn't optional. The act requires action.
But even after the Court's decision, climate change-denying professionals, the fossil fuel industry and its marionettes in Congress have sought to keep either emissions rule from being implemented.
Just two weeks ago, in fact, seven Democrats—U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Warner of Virginia—sent a letter to Obama noting their “deep concerns” with the new-plant rule, technically the New Source Performance Standards for carbon dioxide emissions. They want implementation of the rule delayed and an alternative developed that doesn't set the same standards for generating plants fired by coal and natural gas.
But limiting emissions, and thus adding obstacles to the building of new coal-fired plants, is one thing. Imposing CO2 emissions limits on existing plants is a much bigger deal. Investors aren't keen on new coal plants anyway, particularly because turbines powered by cheap natural gas have made new coal operations uneconomic.
Below the fold is more analysis on the existing plant rule.
Controversial as the new plant rule has been, the existing plant rule is certain to run into far more opposition. As Ben Adler at Grist has noted, "June 2 won’t be the end of the fight, but just the beginning."
Among the other foes of the emissions rules has been the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), funded in part by fossil fuel giants like Koch Industries and Peabody Energy. Suzanne Goldenberg at The Guardian reported early this month that ALEC had launched a new attack on the emissions rules, focusing particularly on getting states' attorneys general to file lawsuits before the rules come into effect instead of waiting until implementation.
The new plant rule requires both natural gas and coal plants to meet the same standards. Neither can emit more than 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour of electricity it generates. That is something natural gas plants can do with room to spare. But the best new coal plants emit 1,800 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour.
While we don't know exactly what the EPA rule on existing plants will mandate, we do know the agency has been working hard to put together a rule that will be "legally sound," as EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy labels it. And we know that, unlike the new plant rule, the existing plant rule will not likely set standards on a plant-by-plant basis. Adler writes:
The agency’s proposed rules will probably roughly follow the model proposed by the Natural Resources Defense Council in a March 2013 report. That approach is to set different limits for each state on the amount of CO2 generated per megawatt-hour by the state’s entire utility fleet—so it’s not each individual plant that matters, but the average across the state. Each state’s goal would be set according to its current electricity mix, so states that currently depend more on coal would start with a higher allowance, but would have to improve more over time. Each state’s limit would also be calculated to allow for economic and population growth. NRDC projects that its method would cut 35 to 40 percent of the CO2 emissions from the electricity-generation sector over 2012 levels by 2025.Once the announcement is made, there will be a 60-day public comment period followed by EPA review. Many in Congress, including some of those seven Democratic senators who don't like the new plant rule, are asking for 120 days, and it seems fairly likely that the public comment period will be extended.
One key concern sure to be addressed in those comments and public pressure on the agency will be the deadline for compliance. Expect a battle between industry and environmental advocates over how quickly states will be required to meet their emissions limits. Except for deniers, the quicker the better is the right answer.
But, from the beginning, McCarthy has shown she wants to cooperate with industry. Speaking to the Association of Climate Change Officers Climate Strategies Forum and later the Steel Manufacturers Association May 13:
“We are at a moment in time when people are demanding of us not just to protect the environment, but to grow the economy,” McCarthy said. “We need to meet those demands. And we need every step we take to be thought of in the most commonsense way.” [...]It's not as if America's corporations have ever been silent or uninfluential in such matters.
McCarthy said that, while she does not believe the greenhouse gas emissions proposal will affect the reliability of the nation's electricity grid, businesses that rely on electricity should view the comment period on the proposal as an opportunity for their “voice to be heard” by the agency.
“I want companies to speak up,” she said. “So if you see something in that rule you don't like, let me know.”
The timing of the rule's announcement presents some potential problems for the Democratic Party on the cusp of midterm elections. Jonathan Chait wrote :
Here is where the politics of climate change stand at the outset of Obama’s new climate offensive. The scientific consensus is stronger and more urgent than ever, while the political consensus is weaker than ever. Republicans are not even considering the notion of asking Americans to spend money to mitigate climate change, and are increasingly uncertain about the notion of even saving money to mitigate climate change. And into this simmering pot of reflexive opposition and anti-empiricism Obama will plop a highly ambitious and not very cuddly scheme to clean up the power-plant sector. It has already drawn strong opposition from the major business lobbies. It is likely to become the major point of conflagration of Obama’s second term.Indeed. Opposition to this signature element of the president's new aggressiveness on climate action can be expected to be ferocious and long-winded. Some people just don't get the grave need for CO2 emissions controls. Or, they do get it, but not enough to cause them to do anything that might nick their campaign contributions or profit margins.
As recently as a few months ago, it was preposterous to imagine that the midterm elections would revolve around anything but Obamacare. But the law, which last fall lay ailing while conservatives spoke openly about pulling the plug, has, to their dismay, bounded out of bed. Obama’s new [CO2] regulations can fill that vacuum once occupied by health care. As right-wing hate fodder, it may even exceed it.