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)

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.

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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.