The Environmental Protection Agency released its long-awaited final rule to regulate carbon pollution from existing power plants on Monday afternoon. This is the most significant action any American president has ever taken to rein in climate change.
Addressing a crowd of scientists in the East Room of the White House, President Obama ticked through a list of threats that confronted the world since he took office: economic calamity, terrorism, nuclear weapons.
“But I am convinced that no challenge poses a greater threat to our future and future generations than a changing climate,” he said. “I believe there is such a thing as being too late. That shouldn’t make us hopeless. It’s not as if there’s nothing we can do about it. We can take action.”
Existing power plants will no longer be able to pollute unlimited amounts of carbon dioxide into the air in the United States once the plan takes effect, which will be 60 days following the as-yet undetermined date the plan is published in the Federal Register.
The coal, oil, and gas burned in most of these plants is responsible for nearly 40 percent of all carbon pollution in the United States. The Clean Power Plan sets the first-ever federal limits on the main pollutant that causes climate change.
“We now have a real shot of protecting this beautiful planet of ours,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said before she introduced President Obama at Monday’s event. McCarthy summed up her agency’s approach in this video from the EPA:
The final rule’s national emissions targets were what had been expected. “Nationwide, by 2030, this final CAA section 111(d) existing source rule will achieve CO2 emission reductions from the utility power sector of approximately 32 percent from CO2 emission levels in 2005,” the rule stated. These reductions will result in $25–45 billion in net climate and health benefits by 2030, according to the agency’s analysis.
Obama also explained the plan at Monday’s event: each state will be able to come up with its own plan to cut emissions in a way that works for them. By 2030, each state must meet a certain emissions reduction target, custom-tailored to their current energy mix. The EPA does not implement a top-down solution across the country to cut emissions, or force specific coal plants to close.
“We’ll reward states that take actions sooner, rather than later, because time is not on our side,” Obama said.
Every state can meet its targets however it wants — closing old coal plants, building more renewable generation, increasing energy efficiency, or working with other states to balance emissions and cuts through market-based systems like the cap-and-trade model already being used by the RGGI states in the Northeast.
Since many states are already regulating carbon pollution, the president said that this federal action was just Washington catching up to that leadership demonstrated by the rest of the country.
Compared to the proposed rule, the new final version cuts more carbon pollution from the power sector, does it with more renewable energy and less natural gas, while providing more flexibility along the way to states trying to meet their targets.
The solar and energy efficiency industries lauded the rule. The wind power industry said it’s up to the task to help states comply.
“American wind power can do this,” Tom Kiernan, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association, said in a statement. “Low-cost wind energy reduced carbon emissions by five percent in 2014, and we’re capable of doing a lot more.”
Obama ticked through several of the criticisms the plan had received, including electricity rates, coal jobs, and government overreach. He received a standing ovation for this passage about the plan’s impact on minority and low-income communities:
Even more cynical, we’ve got critics of this plan who are actually claiming that this will harm minority and low-income communities. Even though climate change hurts those Americans the most, who are the most vulnerable. Today, an African American child is more than twice as likely to be hospitalized from asthma. A Latino child is 40 percent more likely to die from asthma. So if you care about low income and minority communities, start protecting the air that they breathe and stop trying to rob them of their health care.
Carbon dioxide released from power plants traps heat and pollutants in the air, and so air quality diminishes. This helps to trigger asthma and heart attacks. The EPA says up to 90,000 asthma attacks will be avoided each year under the rule.
Later, the president went off script, saying “sometimes we feel as if there’s nothing we can do.”
“Tomorrow’s my birthday,” he said, and began to reflect on his younger college days. He said he arrived in Los Angeles in 1979 for college and wanted to go outside and take a run. But after five minutes, he couldn’t breathe, because of the horrible smog problem it faced. He listed other environmental calamities, such as Ohio’s Cuyahoga River being so polluted that it caught on fire.
Even with those horrible problems, he said, the nation came together to fix them. California’s air is much cleaner, as are Ohio’s waterways. The parallel to climate change was clear.
“We can figure this stuff out as long as we’re not lazy about it,” he said.
These rules are not the result of new congressional legislation. They are the result of what the Clean Air Act tells the executive branch it has to do.
When Congress passed, and President George H.W. Bush signed, the 1990 update to the Clean Air Act, it included a section on pollutants not specified or envisioned by lawmakers at the time. In 2007, the Supreme Court decided in Mass. v. EPA that carbon dioxide qualified as a pollutant that could be regulated under that section of the Clean Air Act if the EPA found it to be a danger to public health. In 2009, the EPA found exactly that, and so the Obama administration began regulating sources of carbon dioxide. It started with mobile sources, and setting greenhouse gas emission standards for cars, trucks, and heavy-duty vehicles. The Clean Power Plan is just the next step in regulating carbon pollution as required by the Clean Air Act. Monday’s announcement will set the EPA, working with the states, to regulating power plant carbon pollution.
The EPA also released its final rule for new, modified, and reconstructed power plants. Unlike the rule for existing plants, this rule sets a specific limit on coal-fired plants: 1,400 pounds of CO2 per megawatt‐hour, which is less-stringent than the proposed rule’s standard of 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt‐hour. This change was made, after feedback the EPA received about the cost of implementing a carbon capture and sequestration system.
“I don’t want to fool you, this will be hard,” the president said in his Monday speech. “We’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change, we’re the last generation that can do something about it. We only get one home. We only get one planet. There’s no Plan B.”
As the speech concluded, Obama got emotional, his voice softening. “I don’t want my grandkids not to be able to swim in Hawaii or not to be able to climb a mountain and see a glacier because we didn’t do something about it. I don’t want millions of people’s lives disrupted and this world more dangerous because we didn’t so something about it. That’d be shameful of us.”
“This is our moment to get this right and leave something better for our kids,” he said. “Let’s make the most of this opportunity.”
The event was supposed to be held outside on the White House South Lawn, but was moved inside due to high heat and humidity. Monday was the 11th straight day that cracked 90 in Washington, D.C.