Obama to Tackle Climate Change at the (Point) Source

In Berlin on Wednesday, President Obama emphasized America’s moral obligation to do more to avert a future of “more severe storms, more famine and floods, new waves of refugees, coastlines that vanish, oceans that rise.” Speaking from Washington, D.C., the top White House climate change adviser, Heather Zichal, followed this statement of intention with hints at more concrete actions, suggesting that President Obama will be implementing carbon dioxide regulations for existing power plants when he reveals his climate change strategy either on Tuesday or in the upcoming weeks.

President Obama, speaking in Berlin last week, reaffirmed commitment to action on climate change. (Source: Flickr user, Matthias Winkelmann)

The regulations on carbon emissions emitted by power plants, the largest individual point sources of carbon pollution in the United States, will be a conscientious step forward. However, with the carbon pollution standard for new power plants still under review, having been delayed past its original intended ruling date in April, the anticipated proposal for existing power plants will not only be even more costly and time consuming, but will likely be met with stronger resistance from Republicans, Democrats, and industries who are worried about the future of coal, slower job growth, and higher energy costs.

These power plant standards come at a time when concerns over climate change impacts are rising significantly.  In order to meet the 2°C Scenario – the official target of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to avoid serious climate change and irreversible damage – the United States would need to at least halve its current emissions (total 6.7 billion metric tons CO2 in 2011 and 5.3 billion metric tons CO2 in 2012), of which power plants accounted for 2.2 billion tons in 2011 and around a third in 2012.

While time is now growing short for the Administration to pass these standards, the road to pushing them through has not been so, making the potential for the ratification of these standards an even more momentous achievement. Starting with the 1990 amendments to the 1963 and 1970 Clean Air Act, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has been and is responsible for setting and regulating the limits on air pollutants in the US. Additionally, a 2007 Supreme Court decision handed the EPA the ability to regulate greenhouse gases (which the EPA has already applied to vehicles’ emissions). In 2012, the EPA proposed a carbon standard for all future power plants, limiting all new power plants to 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per megawatt-hour.

If everything had gone according to plan, the proposed carbon standard would have essentially made it impossible to build new coal-fired power plants without carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. Due to the higher costs associated with implementing CCS technology on new power plants, the U.S. power sector would likely transition away from coal-fired generation to other technologies, such as natural gas and renewable energy. As natural gas fired generation produces, on average, half the amount of carbon dioxide, one-third the amount of nitrogen oxides, and one percent the amount of sulfur oxides produced in coal-powered plants , natural gas-fired power plants would be allowable under the carbon standard.

Compared to 2012, when coal and natural gas held an equal share in power generation, coal has generated 40 percent or more of the nation’s electricity while natural gas has generated 25 percent each month since November 2012. Without regulations on the carbon dioxide or greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, it is likely coal power plants will continue to dominate in the US due to now rising natural gas prices and the extent of the US coal resources, and if that is the case, emissions will continue in the business-as-usual scenario with over 5.3°C rise. 

The potential new standards to regulate emissions from existing power plants are vital for mitigating climate change as the business-as-usual scenario cannot continue. In order to pass the standards before the end of Obama’s administration, however, timing is critical. The standards must pass through a time-consuming review process:  1) the EPA publishes the guidelines; 2) states submit plans for limiting carbon emissions; 3) the EPA reviews the proposals; and 4) the public comments on the plan. However, as the carbon standard for new power plants missed its April 2013 deadline after objections from the electric power industry on legal and technical grounds, the outlook for existing power plant carbon emissions regulations is an even longer, costlier, and more tedious process.

Michelle Ray is a Climate & Energy intern at Worldwatch Institute. 

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