President Obama Unveils a New Carbon Plan

A coal-fired plant in Glenrock, Wyoming. Image Credit: Greg Goebel

At the end of his first year in office, President Obama made a bold promise: the United States would cut its greenhouse gas emissions substantially by 2020.

Unfortunately it was a risky pledge that hinged on Congress. After President Obama was unable to get his major climate change proposal through Congress in his first term, it seemed as though his pledge to the rest of the World and planet Earth might disintegrate into thin air.

But today, President Obama announced plans to bypass Congress entirely. By using his executive authority under the Clean Air Act, he proposed an Environmental Protection Agency regulation to cut carbon pollution from the nation’s power plants 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. It’s one of the strongest actions ever taken by the United States government to fight climate change.

“The shift to a cleaner-energy economy won’t happen overnight, and it will require tough choices along the way,” President Obama said Saturday in his weekly radio and Internet address, previewing Monday’s announcement. “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.”

The regulation targets the largest source of carbon pollution in the United States: coal-fired power plants. So naturally it has already met huge opposition.

“The administration has set out to kill coal and its 800,000 jobs,” said Senator Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the nation’s top coal-producing state, in response to President Obama’s Saturday address. “If it succeeds in death by regulation, we’ll all be paying a lot more money for electricity — if we can get it. Our pocketbook will be lighter, but our country will be darker.”

But rather than forcing coal plants to immediately shutdown, the E.P.A. will allow States several years to retire existing plants. They estimate that by 2030, 30 percent of U.S. electricity will still come from coal, down from about 40 percent today.

The regulation also gives a wide range of options to achieve the pollution cuts. States are encouraged to reduce emissions by making changes across the electricity systems. They’re encouraged to install new wind and solar generation technology. This will create a huge demand for designing and building energy-efficient technology.

The plan is flexible. “That’s what makes it ambitious, but achievable,” said Gina McCarthy, the E.P.A. administrator, in a speech this morning. “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.”

The proposal will also help the economy, not hurt it. The E.P.A. estimates that the regulation will cost $7.3 billion to $8.8 billion annually, but will lead to economic benefits of $55 billion to $93 billion throughout the regulation’s lifetime.

The proposal unveiled today is only a draft, open to public comment. Already it has received criticism and praise from industry groups and environmentalists alike. President Obama plans to finalize the regulation by June 2015 so that it will be in place before he leaves office.

To see why Universe Today writes on climate change, and even climate policy, please read a past article on the subject.