We Need a Clear Signal that the Obama Administration Will Issue Power Plant Carbon Standards Soon

June 17, 2013
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

More than a year after the EPA issued its draft carbon standards for new power plants, and subsequently received over 3.2 million comments in support of them, it has yet to finalize the standards. Meanwhile last week the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a report saying the U.S. experienced $110 billion in damages from extreme weather in 2012, with Sandy ($65 billion) and the drought ($30 billion) being the two most costly events. We need President Obama to show that his administration is committed to continued, ambitious action to cut carbon emissions, delivering on his Inaugural Address promise.

Zichal and others say that Administration climate agenda will be announced soon

Last week Heather Zichal, the top White House advisor on energy and climate, indicated that the Obama Administration will be announcing details of its climate agenda “in the coming weeks and months.” She specifically said “We will continue to build on the progress using the tools of the Clean Air Act to advance a broader climate agenda.” That is exactly what finalizing the carbon standards for new power plants and issuing draft standards for existing power plants would do.

We’ve also seen increased speculation in the news about a major “July climate announcement.” Whatever that announcement is, it needs to be specific. The President has already used the bully pulpit to make his overall commitment to addressing climate change clear and should continue to do so. But with just a little more than three years left of his term, we need a road map for reducing emissions as soon as possible.

Suing the EPA for action on the power plant carbon standards

In December 2010 the EPA reached a settlement agreement promising to propose standards to regulate carbon emissions from new and existing power plants by July 26, 2011, and finalize them by May 26, 2012. Following that, after much delay, it released draft standards for new power plants last April. Because it has now missed its one-year legal deadline under the Clean Air Act to finalize the draft carbon standards for new power plants, and has also failed to propose standards for existing power plants, a number of environmental groups announced their intention to sue.

When the science is so clear on the causes of global warming (our emissions from burning fossil fuels and cutting down tropical forests) and the need for urgent action (atmospheric concentrations of CO2 hit the ominous 400ppm mark last month), it is regrettable that legal action is required to simply make the EPA do its job: protect the health and well being of Americans by reducing carbon pollution. With Congress failing to pass legislation to address many important public health issues, going to court is a strategy that many environmental groups have chosen to adopt.

Climate impacts are evident. Why is Congress failing to act?

From raging forest fires to damaging coastal flooding, from searing heat waves to heavy rainfall, the growing risks and costs of extreme events with climate contributors have become increasingly evident to Americans. Yet too many policy makers in Washington are failing to take this seriously and are blocking any action toward  a national plan to build resilience and cut carbon emissions.

There are some isolated bright spots though. Last week five senators from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, all states hard hit by Sandy, sent a letter to President Obama urging him to issue the power plant standards. Also last week newly-elected Senator Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) gave his first speech on the Senate floor and spoke powerfully of the great economic opportunities for our nation in addressing climate change by investing in clean energy and innovation.

From businesses to the American public, many would probably prefer to see Congress to live up to its responsibilities. But failing that, the Obama Administration must use its executive authority to act, and act soon. That too is a sign of the democratic process at work.

Here’s what the Administration needs to do on climate and energy

If I could be so bold, here’s what I think the Obama Administration needs to do in the near future: Within the next month, they should announce a firm date for finalizing the carbon standards for new power plants this summer. The draft standard issued last year is a good one, supported by sound science and by the American public. A major deviation from that could undermine the strength of the standard and its ability to help ensure a transition away from high carbon electricity generation. Revising the standard would likely also reset the clock on the process for finalizing the rules and delay its final issue.

Simultaneously, they should also announce firm dates for when they will issue a draft standard for existing power plants, which is where roughly one-third of our emissions come from currently. Leaving this timing uncertain is bad for businesses and investors that need to make long-term choices about our power generation fleet. And it’s bad for Americans who are already being pummeled by costly climate impacts.

We also need policies and measures that will directly help ramp up renewable energy and efficiency. As my colleague Steve Clemmer points out, record amounts of renewable energy are already being deployed in the U.S. Now we need to build on that progress and scale it up. Including renewable energy and energy efficiency as compliance options can also help achieve a strong, flexible, cost-effective carbon standard for existing power plants.

Furthermore, it’s time to begin work on a national adaptation plan that would help communities across the country assess their climate risks and vulnerabilities, based on locally relevant scientific information, and understand their options to help protect themselves. Mayor Bloomberg has given New York a head start with the ambitious plan he announced last week. Now we’ve got to make that happen everywhere, even in small towns and cities that may not have the resources of a big city like New York.

Time for bold leadership

I don’t underestimate how difficult it is to take these kinds of actions in our current highly polarized political environment. But the public wants action and these are the right decisions for our future. Large majorities support the very proposals the administration might be ready to enact.

Unfortunately, with climate change, we don’t have the luxury of time. This is an occasion for bold political leadership and vision and I remain hopeful that President Obama and his administration are up to the task. We’ll see if that hope is borne out with the possible climate announcement next month, especially in what it says on the power plant carbon standards.