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: