The EPA’s Clean Power Plan is History in the Making

, president | July 29, 2015, 1:50 pm EDT
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“[People] make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.” —Harry S. Truman

The Obama Administration is set to release the final version of the Clean Power Plan shortly. The eyes of the world will be on it, and the stakes are high.

The Clean Power Plan, issued in draft form last summer, imposes the first-ever federal limits on carbon dioxide emissions from our nation’s power plants. With power plant emissions accounting for about 40 percent of U.S. carbon emissions, reductions in this sector represent our “lowest hanging fruit” because we have proven and cost-effective alternatives to fossil-fuel based electric generation. The Plan gives states the opportunity to build on policies that are already in place and working at the state level, such as regional cap and trade programs, renewable energy standards, and energy efficiency investments. It will push those states that haven’t yet adopted these and other policies to do more.

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By raising the EPA’s renewables target, we can achieve a 40 percent reduction in power plant emissions below 2005 levels by 2030.

Why the Clean Power Plan has global significance

The world is watching because a strong Clean Power Plan is one of the essential elements of a successful climate agreement at the worldwide summit in Paris this December. The United States has committed to reduce its economy-wide emissions of heat trapping gases 26-28 percent by 2025, a commitment that has galvanized other countries to offer ambitious reduction pledges of their own.

The Clean Power Plan is key to the U.S. pledge for two reasons: first, it accounts for a major portion of our pledged reduction; and second, it is a legally binding regulation that needs no additional congressional authorization to become effective. Thus, the world is literally counting on the Clean Power Plan as one of the primary ways the United States—one of the world’s largest carbon emitters—will reduce its share of heat trapping gases.

Strengthening the Clean Power Plan

When the draft Clean Power Plan was issued last summer, UCS praised the Obama Administration for taking an important first step. But we also contended that the draft plan was too modest, particularly on the issue of the role of renewable energy in cutting emissions.  We submitted technical analysis, echoed by many others, showing that we can get much steeper and cost-effective reductions than EPA had assumed in the draft proposal with a bolder expansion of renewable energy. This is true in part because renewable energy has dropped precipitously in price, coming down even since the draft rule was issued.  We and many others also demonstrated that a higher penetration of renewable energy will bring a host of other ancillary benefits, including job creation(because installing solar panels and wind turbines can’t be outsourced); a hedge against volatile fossil fuel prices (because wind and solar power costs are stable and predictable); and clean air.

So, one key element that I will be looking for is whether the EPA heeds our recommendations to build a bigger role for renewables into the final plan.

UCS also argued that the overall goal—power plant emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030—was too modest. We are already halfway there nationally (power plant emissions in 2014 were about 15 percent lower than 2005). A plan that calls for the United States to stay along our current course of incremental reduction is simply not sufficient to address the urgency of the climate threat we face. By raising the renewables target as UCS recommended, we can achieve a 40 percent reduction in power plant emissions below 2005 levels by 2030. There are other ways of doing even better, such as a more ambitious deployment of energy efficiency.

So, another key element I will be looking for is whether the EPA plan calls for greater emissions reductions by 2030. Doing so will demonstrate the Obama Administration’s resolve to meet the upper bounds of its 26-28 percent by 2025 pledge, and encourage other countries to push toward the outward edges of their ambition.

Finally, during the public comment period a number of states asked the EPA to lengthen the deadlines for compliance. Our analysis indicates that such an extension is not needed, as states are already on track to cut their emissions through actions they’ve put in place like state renewable energy and energy efficiency standards, and coal plant retirements. If the EPA does decide to delay compliance timelines, I’ll be looking for assurance that the overall emission reductions achieved by the rule stay strong, early action by states is incentivized, and any delay won’t jeopardize the U.S.’s 2025 international commitment of a 26-28% reduction in economy-wide emissions.

A historic legacy of climate action

Historians may well look back and conclude that President Obama’s strong leadership on climate action is the most important long-term legacy of his administration. But a strong finalized Clean Power Plan is essential if his administration is to be remembered for the kind of transformative leadership President Truman so eloquently described.

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  • Ron Myers

    While a stronger reliance on renewable electrical generation methods would be protective of the global environment and make inroads in reducing the temperature increases, the legal abilities of the EPA are limited. From a national basis under the Clean Air Act, EPA can either propose emissions limits under 42USC7411(d) { https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/7411 } or as a hazardous air pollutant. The latter would be very difficult to prove legally. I the former statute, the Agency can only develop an emission limit for new sources and at a level that has been demonstrated by an existing source. After the Agency has set the limit for new sources, the Agency can require State’s to develop a Plan to implement emission limits within their jurisdictions. It seems that EPA believes that under this legal limitation a 32% reduction from 2005 levels is achievable. This 32% is not as much as it seems since as of today the electrical utilities have already shut down their most inefficient power plants (average construction date of 1958) which total about 15% of the nations capacity. It is unclear what percentage of CO2 emissions this 15% of capacity represents as these units are probably peaking units that were used only during the highest demand for electricity. What is really needed from government is investment in renewable energy research and a requirement for utilities to purchase electricity generated by renewable means at a rate greater than their incremental cost of $0.025 per kwh.

  • James

    Is UCS going to trade the CPP for Keystone too? What about cutting oil in half?

    • Richard Solomon

      Yes, there is no mention of KXL in this piece. The extraction of tar