Study: We Can Cut Carbon Pollution One Third By Closing ‘Carbon Loophole’ Through The Clean Air Act

by Whitney Allen

After four years of congressional stalemate on efforts to slash carbon pollution responsible for climate change, the Natural Resources Defense Council released a road map to cleaner electricity this week that relies on existing executive authority rather than Congress.

NRDC’s new report describes how  the Obama Administration can make substantial cuts in carbon pollution from existing power plants, which are the single largest source of carbon pollution in the U.S.  Its strategy would employ Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, which gives the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to “set state specific carbon emission rates that reflect the diversity of the nation’s electricity sector and fuel mix.”

This approach differs in a few important ways from earlier pieces of legislation like the 2009 climate bill sponsored by Representatives Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Ed Markey (D-MA) during the 111th Congress. The proposal would set the initial pollution reduction standard for power plants by taking their state’s current energy mix taken into account. That is, a state with relatively low pollution would have a different target compared to a state with high emissions.

In addition, states would be allowed to create regional alliances, such as the ten-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), to work together to meet pollution reduction goals. This is crucial because the electricity supply from power plants frequently crosses state boundaries.

Under the NRDC proposal, states would develop a compliance strategy most appropriate for their mix of electricity generation, as long it achieves pollution reductions. They can develop state policy options that improve the efficiency of current plants, incentivize energy efficiency, shift production to lower-pollution natural gas plants and/or zero-emitting wind or solar generation.

NRDC estimates that its plan would cut carbon emissions by 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and 34 percent by 2025. The accompanying reduction of other power plant pollutants would also save 3,600 lives and prevent nearly 1.2 million asthma attacks in 2020 alone.

These benefits create a significant return on investment. NRDC predicts that successful implementation of the plan could cost around $4 billion dollars in 2020, and lead to a return of anywhere from $25 – 60 billion due to reduced illnesses and other harms from climate change.

The NRDC proposal is already garnering interest. William Reilly, EPA Administrator under President George H. W. Bush, called it “an imaginative proposal that addresses some real needs. It deserves to be carefully analyzed and taken seriously by all the affected interests.”

Carol Browner, former EPA administrator and current distinguished senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, added “NRDC’s proposal is very thoughtful and should be part of any debate on how we build on the work already begun by the administration to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

CAP Chair and Former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta put the proposal in context:

“The recent plague of climate related extreme weather events particularly harms middle- and lower-income households. We can reduce the climate change threat to the middle class by limiting carbon emissions from their largest source – power plants.

“The Natural Resources Defense Council’s plan would allow states to design their own cost-effective programs to limit pollution. Investments to achieve these reductions would create manufacturing, construction, and other well-paying jobs. President Obama can build on his carbon pollution reductions from motor vehicles by establishing a standard for existing power plants.”

The urgency to reduce the carbon pollution responsible for climate change grows every day. On December 4, 2011, the New York Times reported that global greenhouse gas pollution hit a record of 9.5 billion tons in 2011.

The United States is beginning to experience the wrath of climate change.  In the past two years it suffered 21 climate-related extreme weather events that each caused at least $1 billion in damages.  These floods, droughts, heat waves and storms caused over 1,000 fatalities, and caused combined damages of $174 billion. “Heavy Weather,” a recent CAP report, determined that these severe extreme weather events disproportionately affected areas where the average household had lower income than the national median household income. The weather has also caused over a thousand deaths between 2011 and 2012.

The NRDC proposal could go a long way in the fight against climate change by reducing carbon pollution from power plants, which are responsible for 40 percent of the nation’s total climate pollution.

Dan Lashof, Director of the Climate and Clean Air Program at NRDC, put it best: “We know where the pollution is. Now we have to go after it.”

Whitney Allen is an intern at the Center for American Progress, coming from the University of Texas at Arlington. She is fall 2012 Bill Archer Fellow.

One Response to Study: We Can Cut Carbon Pollution One Third By Closing ‘Carbon Loophole’ Through The Clean Air Act

  1. Matt Wasson says:

    Wow, this is a really wonky report, but it’s also incredibly valuable for those of us aiming to support good climate policy from the administration over the next few years. Big thanks to NRDC for pulling this together and to Climate Progress for brining it to our attention.