Tough new rule for power plants

A regulation to be proposed Monday would cut US carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent by 2020.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
A regulation to be proposed Monday would cut US carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent by 2020.

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Monday will announce one of the strongest actions ever taken by the US government to fight climate change, a proposed Environmental Protection Agency regulation to cut carbon pollution from power plants 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, said people briefed on the plan.

The regulation takes aim at the largest source of carbon pollution in the United States, the nation’s more than 600 coal-fired power plants. If it withstands an expected onslaught of legal and legislative attacks, experts say that it could shutter hundreds of the plants and lead, over decades, to systemic changes in the electricity industry, including transformations in how power is generated and used.

It is also likely to stand as President Obama’s last chance to substantially shape domestic policy and as a defining element of his legacy. The president, who failed to push a sweeping climate change bill through Congress in his first term, is now acting on his own by using his executive authority under the 1970 Clean Air Act to issue the regulation.


Under the rule, states will be given a menu of policy options to achieve the pollution cuts. Rather than immediately shut down coal plants, states could reduce emissions by making changes across their electricity systems — by installing new wind and solar generation or energy-efficiency technology, and by starting or joining state and regional “cap and trade” programs, in which states agree to cap carbon pollution and buy and sell permits to pollute.

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EPA officials hope the approach will allow states to comply with the regulation more easily and cost-effectively, by adopting policies tailored to regional economies and energy mixes. But industry groups planning to sue to block or delay the rule have said that approach makes the rule more legally vulnerable.

Details of the proposed regulation were first reported Sunday by The Wall Street Journal online.

Because burning coal is the largest source of the greenhouse gas emissions, which scientists blame for trapping heat in the atmosphere and dangerously warming the planet, the rule is expected to have a powerful environmental impact. It comes on top of a regulation Obama issued in his first term that sharply increased the required fuel economy of vehicles, the second-largest source of carbon pollution.

Experts said the new regulation would set the country on track to meet its target set forth in a United Nations accord in 2009, when Obama pledged that the United States would cut its greenhouse gas pollution 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, and 83 percent by 2050.


On Sunday, environmental advocates praised the proposed rule while the coal industry attacked it as a symbol of executive overreach that could wreak economic havoc.

“This momentous announcement raises the bar for controlling carbon emissions in the United States,” said Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute. “These new standards send a powerful message around the world.”

Scott Segal, a lawyer who represents coal companies, wrote in an e-mail, “Clearly, it is designed to materially damage the ability of conventional energy sources to provide reliable and affordable power, which in turn can inflict serious damage on everything from household budgets to industrial jobs.”

Last week, the US Chamber of Commerce warned the rule could lower gross domestic product by $50 billion annually.

The proposal will be a draft, open to comment. There is no deadline for a final regulation, but Obama directed the EPA to issue the rule by June 2015. The timing signals he may be more interested in a legacy-making global deal on climate change than in short-term politics. The rule could make things difficult for Democrats in coal states, but easier for US climate change negotiators this fall at the UN General Assembly.