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Another View: New EPA rules on carbon emissions are historic but modest

Published: Tuesday, June 3, 2014 11:43 p.m. CDT

President Barack Obama’s proposal to reduce power-plant emissions is a historic achievement of relatively modest scope. Understanding this paradox is essential to judging both the rules themselves and the reaction to them.

The reaction first: Industry’s campaign against them began before they were made public, while the top Republicans in the House and Senate offered their considered judgment within minutes of their release (“nuts” and “a dagger in the heart of the American middle class,” respectively). Assessments in favor, in contrast, are noticeably more restrained.

What explains the discrepancy? Answering that question requires a closer examination of the rules themselves.

Their goal is to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030. That reduction will be measured, however, from 2005 – and emissions have already fallen by 12 percent since 2005. Even if the plan succeeds, it would have only a slight effect on global emissions.

Yet it’s not quite fair to say the rules are insufficiently ambitious. That’s because, by allowing the states flexibility in how they meet these goals, they could provide a template for future regulation. There’s also something to be said for achievable goals. Not only will a successful plan of its own help the United States persuade other nations to reduce their carbon emissions, but it also may bring about technologies that can help the rest of the world do the same.

The rules proposed Monday by the Environmental Protection Agency would push power producers – the country’s biggest carbon polluters – to use more natural gas and other sources of power, burn less coal and close the dirtiest coal plants altogether. The EPA would offer states four strategies to help them reach these goals.

The first is to get individual power plants to run more efficiently, with lower carbon emissions. (The oldest, least efficient coal plants in the U.S. spew about 30 percent more carbon emissions than the most efficient ones do.) The second is to change the distribution of power generation among existing plants. In other words, lean more heavily on natural gas plants.

The third approach is for a state to derive a greater share of its electricity from noncarbon or low-carbon energy sources, including solar, wind and nuclear. That could mean setting renewable portfolio standards in states that don’t yet have them or, where they exist, making them more aggressive. Ideally, a side effect of such strategies will be the development of much new (exportable) clean energy technology. Fourth, states can work on lowering consumers’ demand for power.

States can use other strategies as well, and join with other states to pool their efforts. For example, they could create carbon trading systems such as the one in California or the one jointly operated by nine states in the Northeast.

Many Americans have justifiably grown impatient for federal action on climate change. These new rules are not perfect, and under the best of circumstances could take years to implement. They will almost certainly be challenged in court.

Still, they are the first such restrictions ever to be seriously proposed by an American president. If all goes well, in 2030, the U.S. power sector will emit 33 percent less carbon dioxide than it would if no action were taken. And the U.S. will have provided the world an example of what can be done, not what can’t.

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