The Environmental Protection Agency proposed limits on greenhouse-gas emissions from new power plants on Tuesday, taking the first major regulatory action to address climate change as promised by President Obama's administration soon after he took office in 2009.
But in a comment that stunned environmentalists, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said the administration has “no plans” to issue similar regulations for existing power plants, which produce the bulk of U.S. carbon emissions attributed to climate change.
“We have no plans to address existing plants,” Jackson said on a conference call Tuesday when announcing the administration’s first-ever greenhouse-gas standards for power plants not yet built. “In the future if we were to propose standards for existing plants it will be informed by a transparent process.”
Jackson described the regulations proposed for future plants as a turning point for U.S. efforts to address global climate change.
“We’re taking a common-sense step to reduce pollution in our air, protect the planet for our children, and move us into a new era of American energy,” Jackson said in a statement released with the regulations.
The “new era” for energy will mean less reliance on coal, which currently provides nearly half of U.S. power supplies, and greater use of cleaner-burning natural gas, the EPA said in a release summarizing the rules. The agency is proposing that new fossil-fuel power plants — namely those fired by coal and natural gas — emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon per megawatt-hour of energy produced. That’s about the same amount of carbon emissions produced by today’s natural gas-plants and about half the amount of produced by coal plants.
“EPA’s proposed standard reflects the ongoing trend in the power sector to build cleaner plants that take advantage of American-made technologies, including new clean-burning, efficient natural-gas generation, which is already the technology of choice for new and planned power plants,” the EPA release said.
Even before EPA officially announced the rule, environmentalists were cheering and critics of the agency were jeering. The rule is sure to reignite a fight over climate change both in Congress and on the campaign trail.
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member James Inhofe, R-Okla., immediately vowed to fight the rule by introducing a congressional resolution to nullify it. “This plan is the most devastating installment in the Obama administration’s war on affordable energy: It achieves their cap-and-trade agenda through regulation instead of legislation,” Inhofe said at a hearing on Tuesday.
Environmentalists prodding the agency to act were elated that the administration proposed the rule after delaying it several times since last July.
“EPA deserves a standing ovation for today’s historic action to protect Americans’ health, strengthen our economy, and address the clear and present danger of carbon pollution,” said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, one of the environmental groups leading a legal challenge to force EPA action on greenhouse-gas emissions, which most scientists agree are the chief cause of climate change.
But Jackson's subsequent statement that the EPA has no plans to limit greenhouse gases from existing plants drew immediate fire. “It’s OK for the administration to do one and then the other, but it would not be OK to do one but not the other,” said Conrad Schneider, advocacy director of the nonprofit group Clean Air Task Force.
Despite industry charges, EPA asserted that the rules for future plants will not create undue costs on the electricity sector. “Because this standard is in line with current industry investment patterns, this proposed standard is not expected to have notable costs and is not projected to impact electricity prices or reliability,” the agency said.