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Obama's Tepid Attempt to Crack Down on Carbon Emissions

Clever math makes new pollution rules look more ambitious than
they are

By Matthew Philips
     June 6 (Bloomberg Businessweek) -- On June 2, the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency announced it will seek to require
the nation’s power plant operators to cut their combined carbon
emissions 30 percent by 2030. Although the EPA already regulates
air pollutants such as mercury and sulfur, this is its first
crack at limiting carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas. The rule
essentially singles out the 600 or so coal plants in the U.S.,
which produce 40 percent of the country’s electricity and account
for about a third of all CO2 emissions. Unsurprisingly, EPA
Administrator Gina McCarthy hailed it as a sweeping measure that
will spur a “clean-energy revolution.” Unsurprisingly, industry
groups decried it as regulatory overreach that will kill jobs and
raise people’s electricity bills.
     The truth is, it’s neither. The proposal isn’t as bold as
the Obama administration makes it out to be, nor is it as
draconian as the energy industry claims. The story of how it came
to be is one of a piecemeal approach, a second-best solution, and
a lost opportunity to achieve far greater limits on pollution.
     A 30 percent cut over 15 years sounds like a big deal, until
you check the fine print. The rule doesn’t say power plants have
to cut their emissions by that amount from current levels, but
from 2005 levels. By turning back the clock nine years, the
administration can claim reductions that look about twice as
large as they actually are. Back then, plant emissions were far
higher than now. From 2005 to 2012, the power industry cut its
CO2 emissions by 15 percent, in part by switching over to
cleaner-burning natural gas.
     In other words, half the reductions that the EPA’s mandate
requires have already been reached, and the rule hasn’t even
taken effect. (That was easy!) The agency says 2005 is a standard
international benchmark used to set climate goals. The EPA could
have called for a 20 percent reduction from 2012 levels; the
result would’ve been roughly the same. But the headline wouldn’t
have had as much oomph.
     The rule also isn’t the death blow to coal that the industry
makes it out to be. “The administration has set out to kill coal
and its 800,000 jobs,” Republican Senator Mike Enzi, whose home
state of Wyoming is the largest coal producer in the U.S., said
on May 31. In fact, the EPA estimates that by 2030, coal will
still provide 30 percent of the country’s power.
     States won’t all be required to cut plant emissions by the
same amount. Instead, the rule gives each one a target based on
the EPA’s estimate of the state’s ability to reduce emissions.
The agency took into account which states have natural gas
capacity to use in place of coal, which can make their existing
coal plants more efficient, and which are further along in using
wind and other renewable sources of power. The result is a
hodgepodge of state goals. Some have to cut pollution a lot;
others not nearly as much. According to EPA estimates, Texas
could have to reduce its emissions by 39 percent from 2012 levels
by 2030, whereas California, which has aggressively cut power
plant pollution, would have to reduce its emissions by only
23 percent. Because natural gas is the top source of electricity
in Texas, the EPA calculates that the state has the ability to
run those plants more while running coal plants less.
Coal-dependent Kentucky and West Virginia are less able to cut
emissions, in the EPA’s estimation; their respective targets are
18 percent and 19 percent. “We realized that every state is in a
different place,” McCarthy says.
     This was not how Obama envisioned attacking climate change.
Early in his first term, he pressed for sweeping legislation to
cut carbon emissions across all sectors of the economy. That
seemed plausible: Democrats controlled the House and Senate. In
June 2009 the House passed an ambitious cap-and-trade bill that
sought an 80 percent reduction in all U.S. CO2 emissions by 2050.
It won support from some power-industry groups because it set
aside billions of dollars for utilities to invest in clean-coal
technologies. But the bill was poison to many Democrats,
especially in the industrial Midwest, and it died in the Senate
in 2010.
     Some Democrats who’d supported the bill became targets of
the nascent Tea Party movement that helped the GOP take back
control of the House that year. Since then, there’s been no
chance of a major environmental bill making it through Congress.
“It was a setback, no question,” says Phil Barnett, minority
staff director for the House Energy & Commerce Committee and an
aide to Democratic Representative Henry Waxman of California, who
co-sponsored the House bill. “We missed out on a solution that
would’ve solved the country’s carbon emissions problem for two
     The president set about finding a way to cut pollution on
his own. He found an important ally: the Supreme Court. In 2007
the justices ruled that under the Clean Air Act, the EPA was
obligated to regulate carbon emissions if the agency deemed they
were harmful to public health, which it did in 2009. “It’s no
secret that everyone preferred having Congress draft climate
legislation,” says Jody Freeman, Obama’s former counselor for
energy and climate change. Using the Clean Air Act “was always
Plan B.”
     One reason is that rules are weaker than laws. When
finalized next year, the EPA’s mandate will certainly face court
challenges by the coal industry, not to mention states such as
Texas that might refuse to comply. And if a Republican is elected
president in 2016, he could simply reverse it. The EPA’s McCarthy
concedes that’s a risk. “I cannot control what the political
winds bring,” she says. “All I can control is what’s in my
universe here.”

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