The first federal rule to limit carbon emissions from existing power plants may be made even more ambitious, a key backer says.
A sweeping federal rule that would curtail carbon emissions from power plants will likely be made even more stringent when it is finalized later this summer, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, widely regarded as a close ally of the Environmental Protection Agency.
The rule, known as the Clean Power Plan, was unveiled by the EPA in June 2014. The subject of more than 4.3 million public comments, it is the keystone of President Barack Obama’s climate agenda and vigorously opposed by conservatives and industry groups.
“We are very optimistic and confident that it will be stronger, in particular in the areas of renewables and efficiencies,” NRDC President Rhea Suh said during a press briefing Wednesday at the organization’s headquarters in the nation’s capital.
The Supreme Court's ruling on the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards last week will not upend the EPA's proposed Clean Power Plan, Administrator Gina McCarthy said Tuesday, July 7, 2015, at an event hosted by The Christian Science Monitor in Washington, D.C. The Clean Power Plan promises "flexibility" to states and utilities, EPA Administrator Gina McCarty has argued.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has previously said changes will be made to the Clean Power Plan, perhaps to interim benchmarks accused of being too ambitious. The agency did not say, however, whether it would ratchet up other areas of the plan, as predicted by the NRDC, stating only that it had engaged in an "extensive public outreach process" in an email to U.S. News on Wednesday.
"We will take all comments into careful consideration as we work toward releasing the final rule this summer," the agency said.
The Clean Power Plan would mandate emissions reduction targets for each state: first, an interim goal to be achieved between 2020 and 2029, and then a final target for 2030. Ultimately, it aims to slash carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants nationwide by 30 percent from 2005 levels.
Fossil fuel trade groups, as well as some in the utility sector that heavily rely on coal plants, have criticized the plan, arguing its interim goals are too ambitious, that the plan overall represents “federal overreach,” and that it will undercut reliability, drive up rates and hamper economic growth.
Clean energy organizations and environmental advocates, by contrast, have argued that the plan’s goals could be made even more ambitious. Since 2008, solar and wind capacity in the U.S. has tripled, and last year, the amount of electricity generated by the two sources expanded far more quickly than that generated by fossil fuels.
Clean energy sources are precisely where the NRDC expects the EPA to revise its benchmarks, the organization’s experts said Wednesday.
“They will be updating information on renewables and efficiency to incorporate data that wasn’t included the first time around that really ups what you can get out of those sources,” David Doniger, director of the council's Climate and Clean Air Program and former counsel to the head of the EPA's clean air program under President Bill Clinton, said during Wednesday’s briefing.
States’ interim goals and deadlines, he added, might also see “some adjustments.”
While new federal rules are typically made less strict when finalized – an attempt to mollify opponents and incorporate their critiques – an EPA move to strengthen the Clean Power Plan might not prove all that unusual or surprising, experts say.
"Usually regulations go in the other direction, but sometimes if you get new information, particularly new scientific information, you may in fact ratchet things up,” says David Konisky, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. On solar and wind in particular, he points out, “they’ve gathered information for a year since the rule came out.”
Steven Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and a former adviser to the EPA, agrees.
“It’s not an unusual kind of change,” he says. “It’s a little bit unusual to happen this quickly, when you’re still in the rule-making process – it’s unusual to change it once you’ve proposed it. But if you’ve learned something new – that solar and wind is getting adopted faster than we predicted – then it is possible to ask more.”
Plus, Konisky argues, with Obama in his second term and the sides already chosen between those who support and oppose the Clean Power Plan, there’s little to fear for the EPA or the White House in making the rule more ambitious. Doing so also may have advantages on the international level, as the U.S. heads toward a landmark U.N. climate change summit in Paris, where negotiators from more than 190 nations hope to hammer out an international agreement to curb emissions.
“There is absolutely no downside for the agency in coming up with a more ambitious proposal for this time: Those in favor of the Clean Power Plan will be in favor of it regardless of the details, and those opposed will be opposed regardless of the details,” Konisky says. “So as the administration looks toward Paris and the overall agenda on climate, this may be in keeping with a way to push forward a little bit: 'Here’s what we believe and here’s what we’re going to move forward with.'”