How Does The New EPA Rule Stack Up Against Obama’s Other Climate Actions?


By now, you probably know the ins and outs of the Environmental Protection Agency’s new proposed power plant rule, which will aim for a 30 percent reduction in power plant carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. But what exactly does that mean in the context of the rest of Obama’s action on climate?

Juliet Eilperin at the Washington Post argues that Obama’s standards on fuel economy will have a bit more of an impact on carbon emissions than the new power plant rule. Introduced in 2012, the CAFE standards will up the average fuel efficiency of new cars and light trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The rule is estimated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light trucks made between 2012 and 2025 by 6 billion metric tons, but it will do so over the lifetime of those vehicles, meaning the results will be slow.

By 2020, Eilperin writes, increased fuel efficiency standards will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 580 million metric tons, compared to the 550 million metric tons the EPA estimates the new power plant rule will cut by 2030. Since the new power plant rule has a target of 25 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2025, however, it will decrease carbon emissions quicker than the fuel efficiency standards will.

That’s if the new rule emerges unscathed after the EPA’s comment period and doesn’t fall victim to the various lawsuits and legislation that are expected to challenge the rule’s authority, however. On Tuesday, EPA Chief Gina McCarthy said she “wouldn’t be surprised” if there were “significant” changes to the emission goals of each state before the final rule is released next year.

Doug Vine, senior energy fellow at Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said the CAFE standards and EPA rule were difficult to compare given their different timelines. But, he said, once the power plant rule was fully implemented, it will save 240 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year. He also said that while the rule does put the U.S. on track to meet its goal of a 17 percent reduction in overall emissions by 2020, the carbon regulations won’t get us there on their own.

“The short answer is by itself, the rule is not going to meet the 17 percent goal,” he said. Since 2005, overall CO2 emissions in the U.S. have fallen about 10 percent, but even still, Vine said the new rule alone won’t force enough carbon reductions to get the U.S. to reach its 17 percent reduction goal. As Climate Progress has previously pointed out, one step the Obama administration can take to help the country reach that goal is to take further steps to regulate methane emissions from natural gas operations.

Still, the EPA rule is a step in the right direction, says Rebecca Lefton, senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, and that coupled with local efforts to decrease carbon emissions, which she says are often under-counted, it puts the U.S. on the right track. The World Resources Institute agrees; in a post published Wednesday, Michael Obeiter and Kevin Kennedy argue that the proposed rule puts the 17 percent reduction goal “within reach.” Lefton also said the rule is significant internationally because the 2020 CO2 emissions reduction target lines up with the timeline for international pledges, and the 2030 target shows the rest of the international community that the U.S. doesn’t have plans to stop mitigating climate change once 2020 is reached.

The rule’s two targets, 2020 and 2030, differ widely in their toughness, however. As Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations points out, the new power plant rule’s 2020 target is comparable to a small tax on carbon. But its target of 30 percent reductions from 2005 levels is no where near as stringent as the 2020 target, and achieves much less reductions than the Waxman-Markey climate bill of 2009 would have.

The new EPA rule will also join the Obama administration’s 2013 proposed rule on new power plants, which makes it essentially impossible for new coal plants to be built in the U.S. unless they employ carbon capture and storage, a technology that’s still unproven. That rule isn’t expected to make a huge difference in terms of U.S. carbon emissions, however, because the cheap price of natural gas has made it so that very few new coal plants have been built in recent years (though that changed slightly in 2013, when natural gas prices, coal use and carbon pollution all spiked in the U.S.).