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Upcoming EPA Proposal could put America back on track to lead on global warming

A regulation proposal on coal plants that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will release in June could be great news for the climate change initiative. The EPA rolled out tough regulations on new constructions of electric generation facilities in January, but the nation’s 1,500 existing power plants were left unaffected. However, depending on the design of this proposal, all power plants—and coal plants in particular—may be forced to drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

In its 2013 Climate Change Action Plan the Obama Administration directed the EPA to draft regulations to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants by June 1, 2014. Electric generation plants are the largest source of greenhouse gas pollution in the nation. In 2007, the US Supreme Court opened the definition of pollutants—which the EPA historically regulates—to include six greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide.

Twelve states and several cities incited the decision by suing the EPA to protect its citizens from greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. The agency, a part of the executive branch, has used that mandate to focus on the thorny issue of climate change, avoiding the nation’s gridlocked congress.

On January 8th, the EPA issued a final ruling on the saucily named Standards of Performance for Greenhouse Gas Emissions from New Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units. For all the pomp of this nearly regal title, the ruling reignited the nation’s climate change mitigation plan. The rule uses the EPA’s authority under Section III of the Clean Air Act to limit carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants.

Like the rest of the world, the U.S. is warming rapidly: this map compares temperature shifts between 1991-2012 and 1901-1960. Map courtesy of NASA.

Like the rest of the world, the U.S. is warming rapidly: this map compares temperature shifts between 1991-2012 and 1901-1960. Map courtesy of NASA.

In particular, new natural gas-fired plants are required to use combined cycling, a process that recycles lost heat energy and is significantly more efficient than traditional plants. Coal-fired utility boilers and integrated gasification combined cycle plants are now also required to use carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). Because CCS has still never been used in commercial applications, the ruling has essentially halted future construction of coal plants. However, until this summer, America’s 600 existing coal plants had been left untouched.

The pending EPA proposal, slated for delivery on June 2nd to avoid the weekend, will likely be broader reaching than its January predecessor. However, the final product must be a fine balancing act between goals and reality. The goal is to mitigate climate change, while the reality is that most electric generation currently depends on fossil fuels and cannot be switched from one day to the next without bringing to a stand-still not only our economy, but schools, hospitals and traffic lights—to name a few.

The stakes are high. “Failure is not an option,” said S. William Baker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, in a New York Times article earlier this year. In the same article, columnist Coral Davenport says that if the regulations are too loose, there will be no environmental impact, while if too stringent, they could cause whopping electric bills, blackouts and years of litigation at the expense of ratepayers.

Despite the risks, the delivery is due after a series of news regarding climate change mitigation. The UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its AR5, the world’s most authoritative climate change report, in the making for seven years and longer than the Bible. Historically a conservative and non-confrontational bunch, the international scientific community used the report to vociferously opine against the fossil fuel status quo. It charges national governments with protecting its citizens’ wellbeing against climate change and details the consequences if drastic changes are not made.

Last year also caught the attention of the public as a harbinger of bad things to come. For the first time in the 800,000 years of data currently available, atmospheric carbon concentration inched over 400 parts per million (ppm) from its historical average around 300ppm. Financiers are also throwing their weight around in the field for the first time, with companies such as Citi Research releasing studies on energy efficiency, climate change and the potential for “stranded assets” —essentially, certain fossil-fuels becoming unusable.

The Obama Administration has also helped pave the way for the proposal’s delivery. Just weeks ago, it released its third National Climate Assessment, an interactive website designed to better educate the millions of Americans who either deny climate change or refute its consequences.

However, though the groundwork has been laid, this is a politically difficult time to deliver such a proposal. With congressional midterm elections coming up in just a few months, political analysts already expect Democrats to lose seats to the traditionally environmentally-insensitive Republicans. The Administration is on track, though, despite the potential damages to its own party. Obama expects the final version of the EPA regulations by June 2015 and wants states to submit coordinating plans by June 2016—all long before his 2017 departure from office.

This proposal may also grow the nation’s pittance of environmental currency. After nearly derailing the Kyoto Protocol, it may boost the American position in the climate change debate for conferences in Peru later this year and Paris the next—the Conference of the Parties, COP20 and COP21.

But until next month—and really, until the final ruling in 2015—observers can only speculate. This could still be a promising rule that never delivers, or maybe poorly launched, like the Affordable Care Act. However, there is hope that the EPA can manage the fine balancing act and change the public dialogue for the better.

Castle Gate Power Plant in Utah. Photo by: David Jolley.
Castle Gate Power Plant in Utah. Photo by: David Jolley/Creative Commons 3.0.

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