How Obama’s Climate Plan Accommodates Coal States


On Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency released its proposed rule to limit the amount of carbon pollution that the nation’s 491 existing power plants can emit into the atmosphere. These plants, which are responsible for about 40 percent of U.S. carbon emissions, will be required to reduce emissions 25 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 through a number of different means, including energy efficiency and renewable energy capacity building. The plants are scattered across the country, and the EPA made a point of giving states widely different targets based on their current emissions profiles.

States that are currently the most intense emitters — those that create the most carbon pollution from each unit of electricity produced — have some of the most relaxed reduction targets. These are states like Montana, Kentucky, Wyoming, West Virginia, and Nebraska, where much of the energy comes from coal-burning power plants. Unsurprisingly, politicians in these states have been among the most vehement attackers of the proposal, tying it into their “war on coal” narrative. However, they fail to mention the concessions the EPA is giving them based on their existing energy generating fleets and limited potential to drastically cut emissions.

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For instance, Washington, already one of the least carbon-intensive states, is the state required to make the largest reduction at 72 percent, followed by Arizona and South Carolina at 52 percent each. On the other end of the spectrum, North Dakota is required to make the smallest reduction at 11 percent. West Virginia and Kentucky, which both get at least 90 percent of their energy from coal, will be required to make reductions of 19.8 percent and 18.3 percent respectively. This acknowledgement of the increased challenges of reducing emissions in the near term hasn’t cushioned the blow state politicians are dealing in an effort to turn the economically manageable endeavor into election-year point-scoring.

“This is the single worst blow to Kentucky’s economy in modern times,” Mitch McConnell, Senate Republican Leader from Kentucky, said on Monday. McConnell went on to call the EPA’s announcement a “dagger in the heart of the American middle class.”

Kentucky’s other senator, Rand Paul, said “the excessive rule is an illegal use of executive power,” and vowed to repeal it. “This latest assault on our economy by President Obama will destroy jobs here in Kentucky and across the country, and will hurt middle class families by hiking their utility bills and straining their budgets,” Paul said in a statement.

Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power, said in a statement that “it is clear that this administration is pushing regulations that are full of costs and no benefits, ultimately bankrupting the American people.”

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said his office will be looking at the “sweeping and draconian proposal,” comparing it “a massive, job-killing energy tax, which will disproportionately harm hard-working West Virginians.”

In a press conference Monday, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin acknowledged that the EPA was giving states some flexibility to design an implementation plan, but he did not mention West Virginia’s lower expectations. He went on to say that “based on the briefings we’ve had, these proposals appear to realize some of our worst fears.”

Preempting the knee-jerk response, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said on Monday that flexibility is what makes the plan ambitious, but achievable. “The glue that holds this plan together, and the key to making it work,” she said, “is that each state’s goal is tailored to its own circumstances, and states have the flexibility to reach their goal in whatever way works best for them.”

The EPA published an interactive map detailing the how each state would be affected by the rules. In determining each state’s potential emissions targets, the EPA relied on four categories of emissions reductions measures to develop a methodology: heat rate improvement (improvements in coal-fired power plant efficiency), coal-to-gas redispatch (how much natural gas is available), renewable and nuclear generation potential, and end-use energy efficiency.

“The EPA first assumed that all coal-fired power could achieve a six percent improvement in efficiency,” reported the Washington Examiner.

Next, it projected states would ideally ramp up to a 70 percent utilization rate of natural gas generators as coal-fired power comes offline. Then it projected renewable energy potential based on regional historical trends. Finally, it assumed a one to 1.5 percent annual increase in energy-efficiency improvements beyond the power plant between 2020 and 2030. States with nuclear power generation received a six percent credit as an incentive to prevent early retirements of plants facing economic headwinds.

John Lyons, Kentucky’s assistant secretary for climate policy, told the Wall Street Journal that he “thinks the EPA recognizes our issue and provided the flexibility that we had said was needed in order to meet whatever standards they put forward. They pretty much laid out every option out there that you could think about.”