White House officials confirmed yesterday that existing power plants will have to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions under a plan being announced by President Obama this afternoon in what amounts to the largest, most comprehensive attempt by the U.S. to deal with the cause and the effects of climate change.
Obama will sign a presidential memorandum requiring U.S. EPA to propose rules by next June limiting the release of greenhouse gases at hundreds of coal-fired plants, senior administration officials told reporters on a conference call yesterday. The rule would be completed a year later, in the summer of 2015, as campaigning begins for the 2016 presidential election.
"We see a real opportunity to cut carbon pollution," said one of the White House officials. "And I think one of the most important and relevant points is that today we already set limits for arsenic, mercury and lead, but we let power plants release as much carbon pollution as they want."
Obama's directive also requires EPA to release an updated proposal for carbon standards at new power plants by Sept. 20, marking a new delay for a rule that was first proposed in March 2012. The officials did not say when that rule would be completed, but it will prohibit the construction of large coal-fired plants that don't capture their CO2 emissions. The standard achieves that by requiring new plants to release no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon per megawatt-hour, a rate unattainable by traditional coal plants.
The president's plan being announced at Georgetown University fulfills the expectations of analysts and environmentalists who believe the U.S. needs a broad strategy to meet its goals to cut carbon emissions 17 percent by 2020. In his speech, Obama is expected to emphasize what White House briefing papers called the "moral obligation" of this generation to protect generations to come from the more threatening impacts of climate change.
"We can protect our kids' health and leave a cleaner, more stable environment for future generations," as one paper summed it up.
Whether that approach can depoliticize what has become a polarizing issue remains to be seen, but it seemed to satisfy some environmentalists.
"We regard it as potentially a real game-changer," Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute, said of the plan on a conference call. Without it, the U.S. would likely fail to reach its emission goals set for 2020, he said.
Kevin Kennedy, who runs WRI's U.S. climate initiative, said it is not enough to limit power plant emissions, which contribute more than one-third of U.S. greenhouse gases. To meet the 17 percent reduction, cuts also need to be made to potent hydrofluorocarbon gases and methane, while increasing energy efficiency and renewable power, he said.
"Across the economy, the U.S. needs to be acting," Kennedy said.
Looking ahead when building infrastructure
Obama's plan calls for action to cut carbon in the transportation sector, increase renewable energy production and establish standards to protect infrastructure from damaging floods and other disasters, according to a 21-page outline of the plan.
The president will require the Interior Department to issue permits for renewable energy projects that amount to 10 gigawatts of electricity by 2020.
"That's enough to power more than 6 million homes," said one of the administration officials.
The plan also calls for a second round of carbon and economy fuel standards for heavy-duty trucks, buses and vans. It extends a 2011 rule requiring more efficient work vehicles for model years 2014 through 2018.
It also addresses hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are chemicals used in vehicle air conditioning systems, by directing EPA to identify "climate friendly" alternatives, according to the plan. On methane, the plan calls for an "interagency methane strategy" to identify ways to reduce its leakage.