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U.S. Could Cut Power Plant Pollution 26%, NRDC Says

EPA Initiating Fewer Civil Enforcement Cases
The EPA's focus on larger cases has secured more pollution reductions and larger civil penalties, said Cynthia Giles, EPA assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

President Barack Obama could cut greenhouse-gas emissions from U.S. power plants 26 percent by 2020, the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a plan that puts pressure on the administration to issue new rules.

Obama can use his authority under the Clean Air Act to clamp down existing polluters in a cost-effective way, the NRDC said in a report today. These emitters, which include Southern Co. and Duke Energy Corp., are the biggest sources of U.S. carbon-dioxide pollution, with power plants fueled by coal, oil and natural gas making up one-third of total emissions.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson said earlier this year the agency had no plans to move ahead with rules, spurring an outcry among environmentalists who say the regulations are crucial in the fight against climate change. NRDC is calling on the newly re-elected Obama to act.

“The time is right for the president and the EPA to address this,” David Doniger, climate policy director for NRDC in Washington, said in an interview. “While ultimately we need U.S. legislation to cut emissions deeply over the long term, we can take a big bite out of carbon pollution with the laws we already have on the books.”

EPA View

EPA Assistant Administrator Gina McCarthy said Nov. 13 that any rule regulating emissions from existing coal-fired power plants is at least several years away.

The NRDC is making its proposal as envoys from more than 190 nations meet in Doha this week to negotiate terms for a new climate change treaty that would require emissions cuts from the world’s biggest polluting nations, including China and the U.S. for the first time.

Developing countries are pressing industrial nations for further steps on global warming. The U.S. has pledged to cut greenhouse gases about 17 percent by 2020 over 2005 levels and says it won’t increase that target at this year’s United Nations meeting.

Resources for the Future, which gets funds through government grants, foundations and companies such as Goldman Sachs, estimates the U.S. can cut emissions 16.3 percent by 2020, assuming the EPA rules for existing polluters are enacted.

Plant Guidelines

Under NRDC’s plan, the EPA would set guidelines for existing power plants that reflect a state’s specific mix of power sources. For example, a state that gets most of its electricity from burning coal would have a different EPA guideline than one that has more of a split between coal, natural gas and oil.

“NRDC’s proposal is designed to give power plant owners freedom to choose how they would achieve the required emission reductions, giving credit for increases in energy efficiency and electricity generation using renewable sources and allowing emission-rate averaging among fossil fuel-fired power plants,” according to the NRDC report. “States would also have the freedom to design their own approach, as long as it achieved equivalent emission reductions.”

NRDC’s plan doesn’t call for emissions trading, known as “cap and trade,” though states could implement such a program if they choose, Doniger said.

The group says that if the new standards were put in place, carbon emissions from plants would decline 26 percent over this decade from 2005 levels. Annual costs would amount to about $4 billion in 2020, and estimated benefits from “saving lives and reducing the risks of catastrophic climate change” would range from $25 billion to $60 billion.

Call for Action

European Union, China, Brazil and India have called on the U.S. to step up greenhouse gas reductions as a first step toward a treaty on reducing emissions worldwide. The U.S. never ratified the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which limits emissions in industrial nations such as the EU, Australia and Norway.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said developed countries need to cut emissions by 25 percent to 40 percent in 2020 from 1990 levels to meet its target of keeping warming since the industrial revolution to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit). Only Norway and Monaco have submitted pledges in that range.

Obama’s climate envoys are in Doha this week for UN talks for a new global warming treaty by 2015 that would take force in 2020. U.S. lead negotiator Todd Stern told reporters yesterday that the U.S. is “on track” to meet its 17-percent emissions reduction goal, in spite of Obama’s 2010 failure to push national cap-and-trade legislation through Congress.

UN Talks

Environmentalists and delegates from countries including China say they will be closely watching the UN negotiations for any signs of how forceful Obama may be on climate policy over the next four years, both domestically and internationally.

“The single most important thing that President Obama can do over the next couple of months is issue standards for existing power plants,” Jake Schmidt of NRDC said in an interview in Doha. “That’s what will send a very clear signal to the international community that the U.S. can reduce emissions and be on track for an international agreement.”

So far, at least one company, Entergy Corp., says it welcomes NRDC’s proposal for new rules, calling it a “good starting point for this important discussion.”

“While we prefer a comprehensive legislative solution that sends an appropriate price signal on carbon emissions while avoiding regressive impacts on lower income customers, this NRDC framework looks to be a thoughtful treatment of a complex issue,” New Orleans-based Entergy, the second-largest owner of nuclear power plants in the U.S., said in an e-mailed statement.

Praise for the plan also came from William Reilly, who served as EPA administrator under former President George H.W. Bush.

“This is an imaginative proposal that addresses some real needs,” Reilly said in a statement. “It deserves to be carefully analyzed and taken seriously by all the affected interests.”

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