On August 3, President Obama unveiled the final version of his Clean Power Plan, a set of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations that, if implemented, would represent the strongest action ever taken by the United States to combat climate change.
Obama is using the authority of an existing law — the Clean Air Act, enacted in 1970 — to issue the regulations. That law says that the Environmental Protection Agency must regulate any pollutant that is deemed a danger to human health and well-being. The Supreme Court upheld the agency’s finding that carbon dioxide in large amounts did qualify as a dangerous pollutant, since it contributes to climate change, providing the Obama administration with both the legal authority and the legal obligation to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.
The Clean Power Plan is divided into three components.
One is an E.P.A. regulation that would require a 32 percent overall reduction in greenhouse gas emitted by existing power plants from 2005 levels by 2030. The rule will probably lead to the closing of hundreds of coal-fired power plants and give fresh momentum to carbon-free energy sources like wind and solar power, and possibly next-generation nuclear plants.
The second regulation would require power plants built in the future to produce about half the rate of the pollution now produced by current power plants. That rule would effectively ensure that no new coal plants are built in the United States. The plan then assigns every state a target for reducing its emissions and requires them to come up with a draft plan for how to do it by 2016 and a final plan by 2018.
When taken together with the administration’s other initiatives, chiefly the fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, it reinforces Mr. Obama’s credibility and leverage with other nations heading into the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in December.
Full implementation and enforcement of the plan is going to be an uphill battle. The plan’s opponents in industry, the states and Congress are already gathering their forces to try to undermine it on Capitol Hill and in the courts, claiming that the plan is radical, will cost thousands of jobs, drive electricity prices through the roof and irreparably damage the economy.
Attorney generals from states that oppose the plan are coming together in a lawsuit to argue that it represents too broad an interpretation of the Clean Air Act. Their legal challenge is expected to reach the Supreme Court around 2017, which will then have to decide whether to uphold the plan or strike it down.
But the truth is this: There is nothing radical about the Clean Power Plan.
For more than a decade, carbon emissions from power plants have been declining — a result of a shift in energy generation from coal to cheap and abundant natural gas, regulation of other pollutants, like mercury, which has caused utilities to shut down older plants, and investments in cleaner fuels and energy efficiency.
Coal generation, which 10 years ago provided just over half the nation’s electricity, last year provided 39 percent. Meanwhile, renewable energy sources like wind and solar power — driven by federal tax credits, improvements in technology and state mandates — have risen sharply in that time.
The new rules will codify and accelerate these trends, making sure that the shift to cleaner fuels continues quickly. Their main goal is a nationwide reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of 32 percent by 2030, from a 2005 baseline. Among their many selling points is flexibility: The rules assign each state a specific target for reducing carbon pollution from plants inside its borders, but allows them to develop custom-tailored plans for meeting these targets. States can choose from a menu of options to meet their targets: switching from coal to natural gas, ramping up wind and solar, reducing energy consumption with so-called demand-side efficiencies, engaging in cap-and-trade systems with other states.
These individual state targets are a result of many months of painstaking negotiations between Washington and the states. Despite this, the plan faces formidable challenges in Congress and the courts. Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, for instance, has begun a pre-emptive strike against the rules, urging states not to submit the required plans (a weirdly anti-states’ rights strategy, since the rules authorize the Environmental Protection Agency to impose its own plans on states that do not comply). But the greater threats lie in the courts, where opponents are preparing to argue that the plan usurps states’ rights, exceeds the agency’s authority or is deficient in other ways.
And then there is the little matter of the coming presidential election. Even if the courts rule that the new regulations are fully consistent with the E.P.A.’s authority under the Clean Air Act, a future president could rescind or delay them. Hillary Rodham Clinton has said she supports the plan and will carry it out.
Republicans are unanimously opposed to the plan.