Obama's Climate Plan Calls for Making Excess Carbon a Crime—Eventually

Photograph by George Frey/Bloomberg

Later this morning, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy will present new draft rules for how much carbon dioxide power plants are to be allowed to spew into the atmosphere. The proposal is considered historic, especially by those who had to sift the 2.5 million or so public comments on the previous draft of these rules. In one respect, it is: This will mark the first time the U.S. has treated carbon dioxide— the leading greenhouse gas that is warming the earth’s atmosphere and imperiling life everywhere— as pollution, full stop. If you’re pumping more than your legal limit of CO2 into the sky, well then, you sir, are a criminal.

Why then does the new rule feel kind of anti-climatic? For one thing, today’s rules aren’t binding (yet), and they’re not so radically different from the earlier, much-commented-upon ones. The two big updates: Coal burning utilities and those burning natural gas will be held to different standards—which is reasonable, given that natural gas burns far cleaner, in terms of CO2—and today’s rules will apply to plants that are currently under construction or will be built in the future. This isn’t about policing the dirtiest of the dirty. It’s about closing a gate behind the dinosaurs.

That the new rules really apply only to unbuilt plants won’t stop the coal lobbies or the more retrograde end of the industry from barking that President Obama is threatening jobs or forcing utilities to jack rates to pay for expensive remediation. (When new mercury emissions limits were imposed in the spring, there were similar doomsday declarations. (The lights will go out! Rates will soar! Obama is coming for your light bulbs!) Nothing of the sort has happened.)

Expect, too, to hear from industry that the new rules effectively “ban” new plant construction. In practical terms, the new rules stipulate that future coal burning power plants can not emit more than 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour, or from 1,000 to 1,050 lbs. of CO2 per Mwh on average, over seven years of operation. Meeting this goal, Obama’s team insists, is doable “using partial CCS”—carbon capture and storage, technologies that strip C02 out of the smokestacks and keep it out of the air. Not all agree that CCS, partial or otherwise, is that feasible.

There are two notable ironies here. One, as Richard Revesz, director of New York University’s Institute for Policy Integrity, points out, is that by regulating only new power plants, and not those that are already belching CO2, we risk polluting even more.

The second is that very few new coal plants are being built in the U.S. because there isn’t demand for them. (USA Today reports that two are being built in North America, one of them in the United States, and three are on the drawing board). With the advent of fracking, natural gas is proving so abundant that it’s doing far more than any EPA regs to reduce reliance on coal.

All that said, there is one way in which today’s announcement will be, if not climatic, kind of amazing to behold. By keeping his re-inaugural address pledge to take action on climate change—independent of Congress—Obama and his top people on the issue will be attempting to do something about a problem that the other major political party in this country refuses to believe even exists. For certain members of Congress, McCarthy might as well be enacting rules to protect unicorns under the endangered species act. That such willful ignorance is the backdrop to progress on climate change may make even a provisional, incomplete set of rules on carbon dioxide a truly historical event.

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