What Angers Environmentalists About Obama’s Global-Warming Rule

A lion is given a shower to cool down as temperatures rise at a zoological park in the Indian city of Jamshedpur on May 2, 2014. As temperatures continued to rise across northern India, Meteorological Department officials predicted a high of 42 degrees by the end of the week. 
National Journal
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Clare Foran
June 2, 2014, 6:42 a.m.

Green groups are pub­licly prais­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s glob­al-warm­ing rules, but the plan doesn’t go as far as many had hoped — and the groups are pre­par­ing a fight to toughen the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pro­posed car­bon cuts.

The En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency re­leased draft reg­u­la­tions on Monday that the agency says would cut power plants’ green­house-gas emis­sions by 30 per­cent from their 2005 levels by 2030.

Green groups are flum­moxed over the use of the 2005 baseline, which is more in line with what power-plant op­er­at­ors asked for than what en­vir­on­ment­al­ists de­man­ded.

Here’s why: Car­bon emis­sions from the U.S. power sec­tor have fallen since 2005, a de­crease at­trib­ut­able to the eco­nom­ic down­turn and a switchover to nat­ur­al gas and away from car­bon-heavy coal. Giv­en that de­cline, en­vir­on­ment­al­ists lob­bied the ad­min­is­tra­tion for cuts re­l­at­ive to a more re­cent baselines year, when emis­sions were lower than in 2005, be­cause that would rep­res­ent a great­er total re­duc­tion.

But that’s not what the greens got.

And as res­ult of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s 2005 baseline, power plants are already well on their way to meet­ing the tar­get. Ac­cord­ing to EPA, car­bon pol­lu­tion from elec­tri­city gen­er­a­tion de­creased by 16 per­cent from 2005 to 2012, a re­duc­tion that re­gisters as roughly half of the 30 per­cent tar­get man­dated by the reg­u­la­tion.

That’s left some en­vir­on­ment­al­ists dis­ap­poin­ted. “It sounds like a riddle: When is 30 per­cent not really 30 per­cent? When it’s 30 per­cent of an in­flated baseline,” said Frank O’Don­nell, the pres­id­ent of Clean Air Watch.

The next step, green groups say, is to press the ad­min­is­tra­tion for a more strin­gent stand­ard. The rule isn’t ex­pec­ted to be fi­nal­ized un­til June 2015 — and between now and then, EPA will be the sub­ject of massive lob­by­ing ef­forts from greens and in­dustry ad­voc­ates alike.

“We’re fo­cused on the near-term tar­get — 25 per­cent be­low 2005 by 2020. This is a strong tar­get but we think even more is pos­sible us­ing some of the com­pli­ance op­tions that EPA laid out, par­tic­u­larly en­ergy ef­fi­ciency. We’ll be work­ing to show EPA this via our com­ments,” said Lena Mof­fitt, Na­tion­al Wild­life Fed­er­a­tion’s cli­mate and en­ergy pro­gram man­ager.

Greens’ baseline beef doesn’t mean they won’t fight tooth-and-nail to de­fend the rule as a whole. En­vir­on­ment­al­ists are wa­ging a two-track battle aimed at do­ing everything they can to win pub­lic sup­port for the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s car­bon reg­u­la­tions while more quietly push­ing of­fi­cials to make them stronger.

“There is no doubt that health and en­vir­on­ment­al groups will heap praise on this pro­pos­al, since it is the only game in town when it comes to cut­ting car­bon from power plants. But I be­lieve groups will also press for the strongest pos­sible fi­nal stand­ard,” O’Don­nell said.

That ten­sion speaks to the un­der­ly­ing re­la­tion­ship between green groups and Obama’s White House. It’s a close al­le­gi­ance, but there are cracks over the pres­id­ent’s vo­cal praise for fossil-fuel de­vel­op­ment — par­tic­u­larly nat­ur­al gas, which yields few­er emis­sions per power unit than oil and coal.