Infrastructure & Environment

Obama Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan Unclear, Will Let States Make Many Decisions

by | May 27, 2014

By Sean Cockerham

President Barack Obama is about to unveil the centerpiece of his agenda to fight climate change, a much anticipated rule to slash the emissions of planet-warming gases from power plants.

The president will call for major reductions, according to sources familiar with the planning, with each state given its own greenhouse gas emissions reduction target and the power to decide how to meet it. The Environmental Protection Agency is putting the plan together, and Obama will announce it Monday.

The plan could push states to require more renewable energy use and to lower demand by investing in efficiency programs for homes and businesses. States also could use so-called "cap-and-trade" systems, in which emissions are limited and polluters buy and sell rights to release greenhouse gases, according to indications the Obama administration has given to environmental groups and others.

California already has such a cap-and-trade system, as does a coalition of Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states including New York, Massachusetts and Maryland.

The new rule could prompt other states to join in similar regional cap-and-trade ventures, or to take other measures to cut down on coal burning.

"This is going to make a big difference for people's health and our kids' future," said David Doniger, climate director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The NRDC's proposals helped shape the Obama administration's plan, which is scheduled to go out for public comment before becoming final next year.

Doniger said he expects the president's plan to make "meaningful reductions," but he said it is not clear exactly what percentage of carbon emissions reductions the president will demand. There's been discussion of a 25 percent cut, but Doniger is skeptical that will end up as the real number. And he said it makes a huge difference whether it's calculated as a cut from 2005 levels _ which the administration has used as a baseline in other carbon goals _ or from current levels.

"The EPA and the White House are holding that quite close," Doniger said.

Power plants are responsible for some 40 percent of the nation's carbon dioxide emissions, and coal burning accounts for three-quarters of that total, according to figures from the federal Energy Information Administration.

Electrical utilities are watching closely and emphasize they've already been moving away from coal.

Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke Energy, the largest electric power holding company in the United States, said its carbon emissions are down 20 percent from 2005 by increasing the use of natural gas and replacing old coal plants.

"Cheap natural gas has helped significantly reduce our carbon emissions and we've accelerated the retirements of coal units," said Duke spokesman Tom Williams.

The Kentucky Coal Association's Bissett argued that Obama is now moving the United States in a direction away from the rest of the world, as Europe and Japan as well as emerging economies such as India turn to coal. He said Obama's action against U.S. coal plants isn't going to have much of a climate impact when considered alongside what's happening in the rest of the world with carbon emissions.

National Mining Association President Hal Quinn said inefficient U.S. coal plants already have been weeded out. Little more can be done to cut emissions at the remaining plants short of closing them, which he said would mean less affordable and less reliable power.

"We're going to need a lot of flexibility from the EPA, because I can tell you that there's not much left in the coal fleet to squeeze out in terms of carbon emissions," Quinn said at a conference this month in Washington sponsored by the consulting firm Deloitte Energy.

(c)2014 McClatchy Washington Bureau

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