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Obama 'Clean Power Plan' bypasses Congress to cut pollution, improve health

Gina McCarthy announces new regulations for power plants at EPA headquarters Monday.
Gina McCarthy announces new regulations for power plants at EPA headquarters Monday.Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

UPDATED: In May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the EPA has the constitutional authority to establish and enforce air pollution standards for coal power plants. On Monday the U.S. Environmental Protection [EPA} Agency proposed a Clean Power Plan [CPP] that President Obama says will maintain an affordable, reliable energy system, while cutting pollution and protecting our health and environment.

The CPP is advertised as a flexible proposal to ensure a healthier environment, spur innovation and strengthen the economy. At the direction of President Obama, and after an unprecedented outreach effort, the U.S. EPA released the plan, which "for the first time cuts carbon pollution from existing power plants, the single largest source of carbon pollution in the United States."

"Climate change, fueled by carbon pollution, supercharges risks to our health, our economy, and our way of life," the White House said in information sent to the White House press corps. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the EPA is delivering on a vital piece of President Obama's Climate Action Plan by proposing a Clean Power Plan that will cut harmful carbon pollution from our largest source--power plants. By leveraging cleaner energy sources and cutting energy waste," McCarthy said in a media release, this plan will clean the air we breathe while helping slow climate change so we can leave a safe and healthy future for our kids. "We don't have to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment--our action will sharpen America’s competitive edge, spur innovation, and create jobs."

The CPP bypasses Congress, which has been antagonistic to nearly all White House policies since Republicans gained control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010. New regulations will force more than 600 existing coal-fired power plants, the single largest source of greenhouse gas emission in the country, to reduce their carbon pollution 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

Across the nation power plants account for roughly one-third of all domestic greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. And while there are limits in place for the level of arsenic, mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particle pollution that power plants can emit, there are currently no national limits on carbon pollution levels. The CPP calls for a 30-percent reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 2030, relative to 2005. Experts on both sides of the carbon-pollution issue say the CPP represents one of the most significant steps the federal government has ever taken to curb the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell joined the White House today on the announcement, saying President Obama understands the moral obligation to future generations to leave the nation's land, water, and wildlife better off than otherwise would be the case if power generators, who have burned coal for scores of years, are permitted to continue to produce electricity by burning coal.

"From standing up homegrown renewable energy and transmission infrastructure, to reducing methane emissions while supporting safe and responsible energy development, to making lands and waters more resilient in the face of climate change," Jewell said DOI is "committed to being a strong partner in cutting carbon pollution and creating American jobs."

Common sense steps, like the ones contained the president's CPP, will be undertaken by the EPA, while providing states with the flexibility they need to make informed decisions about the mix of energy sources that works best for them.

The National Association of Manufacturers was among the critics of the plan today, arguing it will hurt American competitiveness. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce warned last week that CPP's rules could cost consumers $289 billion more for electricity through 2030 and crimp the economy by $50 billion a year, according to Reuters.com.

For states like Ohio where coal burning electric generation plants have been in operation for a long time and fear how its rollout will impact coal mining jobs, the plan won't be appreciated, and could run into state headwinds as state EPA administrators follow the tune directed by Republican governors like John Kasich, which likely won't be helpful if how state officials reacted to the Affordable Care Act is any measure of their willingness to help implement national policies from the Obama White House. States will be given flexibility in areas including improving power plant heat rates, using more natural gas plants to replace coal plants, ramping up zero-carbon energy efforts like solar and windpower while increasing energy efficiency.

But it's hard to image Gov. Kasich, running for reelection this year, directing Ohio's EPA to be a positive partner with U.S. EPA, since that course of action would run contrary to Kasich's story that Ohio would be doing better if Washington headwinds weren't keeping him and his pet project, JobsOhio, the state's private job creation agency, from creating more jobs.

Earlier this year, Scott Nally, the man Gov. Kasich originally picked to run OEPA, resigned suddenly. Rumors circulated that Nally had not been as friendly to Ohio coal companies as he might have been. It took more than a month, but in late February Gov. Kasich appointed Craig W. Butler as director of the OEPA. Butler has served as interim director of the Agency since Nally left in early January. He previously served as the Assistant Policy Director for Energy, Agriculture and the Environment for the Kasich Administration.

Following today's announcement, CGE asked a spokesman for Gov. Kasich Does is this is just more "headwinds" from Washington? And does Gov. Kasich buy into the claims by the U.S. Chamber and others on possible future job losses and damage to the economy? More importantly, will the Ohio EPA be helpful, indifferent or harmful to the CPP?

The plan comes at a time when Gov. Kasich is expected to sign a bill passed by a supermajority of GOP House and Senate members that would freeze Ohio's renewable energy standards, established under former Gov. Ted Strickland, for two years, allowing a legislative study committee to evaluate the program's progress to date. It is hard to image that a study committee dominated by Republicans would after two years decide to retain or expand the renewable energy portfolio.

The Ohio EPA did not respond in time to a request by CGE to include a statement on behalf of the Kasich Administration for this publication to President Obama's proposal plan today. Later in the day, though, OEPA did send this statement via Christopher Abbruzzese, an agency spokesman. "We need to fully understand how exactly this proposal impacts Ohio. We are, of course, concerned with anything that could hurt Ohio's economy at a time when we are just beginning to get back on track,” Ohio EPA Director Craig W. Butler said.

The news coverage today will obviously focus on smokestack states like Ohio, where plant emissions start and drift with the winds to eastern states, where they have been shown to fall as acid-rain, among other hazards to people that cause health problems. President Obama said people's health won't be as bad in the future. "In just the first year that these standards go into effect, up to 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks will be avoided," the president said in his weekly address, adding, "those numbers will go up from there." The immediate health benefits that regulators are forecasting, however, have little to do with lowering carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. The White House narrative is that smog-forming emissions and soot, that drift eastward to other states, will be mitigated over time if these rules are followed.