Obama fights for clean energy

US President Barack Obama unveiled his plans last week to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But as John Dyer in Boston writes, there are those who argue that his plans are designed to deflect lawsuits as much as they are to combat climate change.

Will this soon be a picture of the past? A coal-fired power plant in the United States. (Photo credit: euze, flickr)

Will this soon be a picture of the past? A coal-fired power plant in the United States. (Photo credit: euze, flickr)

“Power plants are the single biggest source of the harmful carbon pollution that contributes to the climate change,” Obama said in a video announcing his administration’s Clean Power Plan. “But until now, there have been no federal limits to the amount of that pollution those plants can dump into the air. Think about that.”

The Clean Power Plan aims to showcase the United States’ efforts to cut its carbon footprint in advance of the international climate talks in Paris in December by reducing its dependence on coal-fired plants for electricity and compel states and utilities to adopt new energy-efficient technology and develop more solar and wind power.

One-third less carbon pollution

The new rules would cut carbon pollution from power plants by nearly a third compared to 2005 levels over the next 15 years, according to the White House. The total share of energy from renewable sources could rise to around 28 per cent in the same period of time, compared to 22 per cent under previous conditions.

The White House estimates that utility customers will spent around USD 85 less per year due to the changes.

Around 40 per cent of American electricity comes from coal-fired plants. But inexpensive natural gas as well as expanding use of solar and wind power has been reducing dependence on the dirty fuel. The plan is designed to hasten those market trends.

Opposition expected

In addition to rising sea levels, more intense storms, hotter droughts and other effects of climate, Obama’s plan also foresees and attempts to address intense legal battles over his plan in the future.

States can begin implementing the new rules in 2022, sufficient time to keep states and utilities from saying the rule are onerous. And in what the White House is calling a “safety valve” rule, states can also apply for waivers that would grant them more time to adopt the rules if they can prove that they can’t easily replace coal with other energy sources and might face energy disruptions.

Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a trade group of utilities, said those loopholes are a clear attempt to deflect suggestions that the administration is being too tough on states and utilities. Segal’s group would nonetheless fight the plan in court because it represents illegal federal meddling into state government and the private sector, he said.

McConnell calls for boycott

In March, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from coalmining Kentucky, wrote a letter to the governors of all 50 states urging them to boycott the rule. The boycott would likely force the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether the plan was constitutional.

“This proposed plan is already on shaky legal grounds, will be extremely burdensome and costly, and will not seriously address the global environmental concerns that are frequently raised to justify it,” McConnell wrote in March.

Earlier this month West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a Republican who is close to the state’s massive coalmining industry, said his federal lawsuit was already drafted to stop the new rules.

“Once the EPA finalszes this regulation, West Virginia will go to court, and we will challenge it,” he said. “We think this regulation is terrible for the consumers of the state of West Virginia. It’s going to lead to reduced jobs, higher electricity rates, and really will put stress on the reliability of the power grid.”

Supreme Court favours coal

The Supreme Court recently sided with coal on a similar question.

In late June, the court invalidated another rule that Obama had championed: a measure that forced power plants to curb mercury emissions that cause respiratory illnesses in adults and developmental problems in children. The court decision didn’t strike down the regulation per se but said the White House didn’t adequately take the economic effects of the new rule into account.

Many power plants had already been cutting mercury emissions because of the rule, too, undercutting the court’s decision. The White House is now reviewing how to address to the court’s ruling.


Photo credit: euze, flickr/Creative Commons

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