The Times West Virginian

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June 25, 2013

Obama plans to limit carbon at power plants

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s national plan to combat climate change will include the first-ever regulations to limit carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants, as well as increased production of renewable energy on public lands and federally assisted housing, environmental groups briefed on the plan said Monday.

In a major speech today at Georgetown University, Obama will announce that he’s directing his administration to allow enough renewables on public lands to power 6 million homes by 2020, effectively doubling the capacity from solar, wind and geothermal projects on federal property. He’ll also say the U.S. will significantly expand production of renewable energy on low-income housing sites, according to five individuals briefed on the plan, who were not authorized to discuss it publicly ahead of Obama’s announcement and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The far-reaching plan marks Obama’s most prominent effort yet to deliver on a major priority he laid out in his first presidential campaign and recommitted to at the start of his second term: to fight climate change in the U.S. and abroad and prepare American communities for its effects. Environmental activists have been irked that Obama’s high-minded goals never materialized into a comprehensive plan.

In taking action on his own — none of the steps Obama will announce today require congressional approval — Obama is also signaling he will no longer wait for lawmakers to act on climate change, and instead will seek ways to work around them.

The lynchpin of Obama’s plan, and the step activists say will have the most dramatic impact, involves limits on carbon emissions for new and existing power plants. The Obama administration has already proposed controls on new plants, but those controls have been delayed and not yet finalized. Today’s announcement will be the first public confirmation that Obama plans to extend carbon controls to coal-fired power plants that are currently pumping heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.

“This is the holy grail,” said Melinda Pierce of Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group. “That is the single biggest step he can take to help tackle carbon pollution.”

Forty percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, and one-third of greenhouse gases overall, come from electric power plants, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Energy Department’s statistical agency.

Obama is expected to lay out a broad vision today, without detailed emission targets or specifics about how they will be put in place. Instead, the president will launch a process in which the Environmental Protection Agency will work with states to develop specific plans to rein in carbon emissions, with flexibility for each state’s circumstances. Under one scenario envisioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, states could draw on measures such as clean energy sources, carbon-trapping technology and energy efficiency to reduce the total emissions released into the air.

Obama also will announce more aggressive steps to increase efficiency for appliances such as refrigerators and lamps, according to people briefed on the plan. Another component of Obama’s proposal will involve ramping up hydropower production from existing dams.

Heather Zichal, Obama’s senior energy and climate adviser, told environmental groups Monday that Obama is working with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan on a target for renewable energy to be produced at federally assisted housing projects.

She framed the Obama’s efforts in the U.S. as part of a broader, global movement to combat climate change, trumpeting the role the U.S. can play in leading other nations to stem the warming of the planet.

Paul Bledsoe, who worked on climate issues in the Clinton White House, said Zichal renewed a pledge Obama made in in his first year in office, during global climate talks in Copenhagen, to cut U.S. carbon emissions by about 17 percent by 2020, compared to 2005 levels.

“This is a policy fulfillment of what the president has been talking about and trying to accomplish for five years or more,” said Bledsoe, now a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

One key issue Obama is not expected to address today is Keystone XL, a pipeline that would carry oil extracted from tar sands in western Canada to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast. A concerted campaign by environmental activists to persuade Obama to nix the pipeline as a “carbon bomb” appears to have gained little traction. The oil industry has been urging the president to approve the pipeline, citing jobs and economic benefits.

Obama raised climate change as a key second-term issue in his inaugural address in January, but has offered few details since. In his February State of the Union, he issued an ultimatum to lawmakers: “If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.”

The poor prospects for getting any major climate legislation through a Republican-controlled House were on display last week when Speaker John Boehner responded to the prospect that Obama would put forth controls on existing power plants by deeming the idea “absolutely crazy.”

“Why would you want to increase the cost of energy and kill more American jobs?” said Boehner, R-Ohio, echoing the warnings of some industry groups.

Sidestepping Congress by using executive action doesn’t guarantee Obama smooth sailing. Lawmakers could introduce legislation to thwart Obama’s efforts. And the rules for existing power plants will almost certainly face legal challenges in court. The Supreme Court has upheld the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, but how the EPA goes about that effort remains largely uncharted waters.

Even if legal and political obstacles are overcome, it will take years for the new measures to be put in place, likely running up against the end of Obama’s presidency or even beyond it. White House aides say that’s one reason Obama is ensuring the process starts now, while there are still more than three years left in his final term.

Under the process outlined in the Clean Air Act, the EPA cannot act unilaterally, but must work with states to develop the standards, said Jonas Monast, an attorney who directs the climate and energy program at Duke University. An initial proposal will be followed by a months-long public comment period before the EPA can issue final guidance to states. Then the states must create actual plans for plants within their borders, a process likely to take the better part of a year.

Then the EPA has another four months to decide whether to approve each state’s plan before the implementation period can start.

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