Historic new regulations to slash US power plant emissions

Aerial view of a coal fired plant near Knox, Indiana. Creative Commons: Mike Lavoie, 2009

Aerial view of a coal fired plant near Knox, Indiana. Creative Commons: Mike Lavoie, 2009

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled draft regulations that require the country’s power sector to reduce emissions 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels.

On Monday, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy announced the rules in a briefing at the agency headquarters in Washington, DC. The rules were immediately hailed as the single largest move by the US government to slow the pace of climate change, which is already negatively affecting residents in all of the country’s fifty states, according to the recently released National Climate Assessment.

The Obama administration has already taken several steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including by setting stricter fuel efficiency standards for cars, light trucks, and heavy-duty vehicles, and drafting rules for new power plants. Since first entering office in 2008, President Obama also has presided over a ten-fold increase in solar generation and a three times increase in wind generation. Even so, the new rules for existing power plants undoubtedly are the centerpiece of the President’s Climate Action Plan.

The power sector is the most carbon-intensive sector in the United States, with roughly 40 percent of the country’s emissions coming from the generation of electricity.

As widely expected, the rules resemble a Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) proposal that sets targets for states based on their current fuel mix and how easy (or difficult) it will be for them to switch to cleaner energy.

The rules set “rate-based” targets, which stipulate how much CO2 can be released per megawatt hour of electricity. States then choose how to achieve these goals—by shutting down coal plants, investing in clean energy like wind or solar, implementing energy efficiency measures, or using other available methods.

Speaking to the plan’s design, McCarthy said:

[It] is all about flexibility. That’s what makes it ambitious, but achievable. That’s how we can keep our energy affordable and reliable. 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 way works best for them.

After a 120-day comment period and four public meetings, the rules will be finalized in June 2015. States will be required to submit their plans of compliance by June 2016, but may be granted a one-year extension (or a two-year extension in the case of states banding together to form a regional program like RGGI).

Environmental, health, and business groups greeted the announcement of the new rules with optimism. The new plan will lead to climate and health benefits worth an estimated $55 billion to $93 billion in 2030, including avoiding 2,700 to 6,600 premature deaths and 140,000 to 150,000 asthma attacks in children. It is also expected to head off some of the costly impacts of extreme weather events, like hurricanes and drought, that are increasing in magnitude and the climate continues to change.

Scaling down dirty energy may even end up cutting costs for American households. According to an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the proposed standards can save American households and business customers $37.4 billion on their electric bills in 2020, an average annual savings of $103 per household.

Perhaps most importantly, the rules will give the US a bargaining chip as momentum builds toward the international climate talks taking place next year in Paris. Connie Hedegaard, EU Climate Action Commission, called the rules “the strongest action ever taken by the US government to fight climate change,” continuing: “this of course sends a positive signal ahead of the Paris conference to finalise a new global climate agreement next year.”

If the new rules allow the US to meet the goal of a 17 percent emissions reduction from 2005 levels that was promised at the 2009 Copenhagen conference, they could set the foundation for even more substantial and ambitious commitments around the globe.


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Quick Facts on Public Health

  • Heat is already the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the United States, with more than 6,300 deaths resulting from exposure to extremely hot weather between 1979 and 2006.  >> EPA, 2010

  • High temperatures raise the levels of ozone and other pollutants in the air, exacerbating cardiovascular and respiratory disease. Urban air pollution causes about 1.2 million deaths each year.  >> World Health Organization, 2010