President Obama has pledged that he will not wait for Congress when it comes to combating climate change. On Friday, the federal Environmental Protection Agency backed up those words, proposing limits on carbon-dioxide emissions from new coal-fired and gas-fired power plants. The proposal adds detail to what the White House unveiled 17 months ago, the move spurred by a 2007 Supreme Court decision requiring regulation of carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act if the emissions pose a threat to human health.
The threat has been well established, the strong consensus of scientists holding that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases generated through human activity are warming the planet and putting many lives at increasing risk. Power plants contribute roughly 40 percent of the country’s carbon-dioxide emissions. Thus, it makes sense to take aim at their operations.
Know that the agency has started modestly. The proposed regulations target new power plants, or those yet to be built. Choose to construct a coal-fired plant, and a power company must reduce the carbon emissions from the current average 1,800 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour to 1,100 pounds. The standard for a plant burning natural gas would be 1,000 pounds per megawatt hour, a level modern facilities already meet.
If that seems to point toward the construction of gas-fired power plants, so do the economic trends. The relatively low price of natural gas, driven by expanding discoveries in Ohio and elsewhere, has resulted in a landscape unfavorable for building new coal plants. The U.S. Energy Information Administration has projected that no coal-fired plants will be built between 2018 and 2035.
In that sense, the so-called war on coal reflects the reality of the market more than a set of rules.
So, in all likelihood, the emissions rules for new coal plants will have little impact. What they do represent is a step forward. The Obama White House has used its authority to lower emissions from cars and light trucks. After new power plants, come existing plants, a step that promises an intense argument. Gina McCarthy, the new EPA administrator, plans extensive outreach when the effort begins, touring the country, meeting with a wide range of interests and stakeholders.
What surely will receive attention is the agency’s hopeful outlook for “carbon capture and sequestration,” or collecting and storing carbon dioxide emissions underground. The technology works in some ways, but not yet on the scale required to meet a sweeping agency mandate. In addition, it is expensive, as much as 75 percent more costly than an ordinary power plant.
That uncertainty suggests the wisdom in a carbon tax, price as an incentive for the market to find cleaner alternatives. Yet that hardly seems likely. So the Obama White House has taken the lead, as it should, pushing the country to start thinking hard about what it takes to combat climate change.