Obama Calls Congress's Bluff With Strict New Coal-Emission Rules

The president promised to take action to stop climate change if legislators didn't, but the new EPA regulations are likely to encounter a stiff fight.
Mike Stone/Reuters

In his January State of the Union address, President Obama urged Congress to take action to stop global warming. But he warned, "If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will."

He's following through on that pledge. Friday morning, the Environmental Protection Agency is releasing a draft regulation to limit carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants, the nation's chief source of global-warming emissions.

The draft regulation is the first of four major regulatory steps the EPA will take to create a significant body of action on climate change before Obama leaves office. The president views these regulations as his global-warming legacy. The coal industry and its friends in Congress view them as a declaration of war.

The rule was met with cheers from environmental groups, but will encounter a barrage of legal, legislative, and political attacks, chiefly from Republicans and coal supporters, who contend he climate regulations represent overreach by the executive branch, and that they will kill jobs, wage "war on coal," raise electricity costs, and damage the economy.

The draft rule requires that all new coal plants built in the U.S. limit their emissions to less than 1,100 pounds of carbon pollution per megawatt-hour — slightly more than half the carbon pollution now produced by a typical coal-powered plant. The draft is an update of a proposal the EPA released in 2012, which was met with outrage by the coal industry. That rule required new coal and gas plants to maintain emissions levels of 1,000 pounds of carbon pollution per megawatt-hour. After meeting with power companies and coal groups and taking into account 2.5 million public comments, the Obama EPA's new draft rule allows coal plants to emit 10 percent more carbon emissions.

EPA lawyers also worked to legally bulletproof the rule, which coal industry lawyers intend to challenge in court. However, despite the slightly looser carbon limits of the new rule, owners of coal plants will still have to install expensive "carbon capture and sequestration" technology. While the technology, which traps carbon pollution and injects it underground before it spews out of smokestacks, is commercially available, it could cost power companies billions of dollars to install.

Instead, it's expected that power companies will simply invest in generating electricity from other, less-polluting forms of electricity, chiefly natural gas, which emits just half the carbon pollution of coal, but also wind, solar, and nuclear energy. As it happens, the climate rules coincide with a market shift from coal to natural gas. Thanks to the recent boom in production of cheap natural gas, electric utilities have stopped investing in new coal plants, and are already investing in building new natural-gas plants.

But electric utilities that rely heavily on coal are still uneasy about the new rule. American Electric Power, an Ohio-based utility that owns one of the nation's largest fleets of coal-fired power plants, stopped building new coal plants before the regulation came out. "We have no current plans to build any new coal-fueled power plants both because we don't need additional generation, and it would be difficult to make an economic case for coal with today's low natural-gas prices," wrote Melissa McHenry, a spokeswoman for the company, in an email. But she added, "If we value maintaining fuel diversity as a nation, a proposed rule that effectively eliminates coal as an option for new power plants is a serious concern, particularly if today's plentiful supply of low-cost natural gas can't be maintained."

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Coral Davenport is an energy and environment correspondent for National Journal.

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