New federal rules that mandate dramatic cuts in heat-trapping gases released by power plants will require Massachusetts and the rest of New England to make significantly smaller reductions in their emissions than other states.
The regulations, released this week by the US Environmental Protection Agency, oblige the nation’s power plants to cut their carbon emissions to 32 percent below 2005 levels over the next 15 years. Ultimately, the regulations are expected to force the closure of hundreds of coal-fired power plants around the country.
Opponents have called the new rules illegal and too costly, and are challenging them in court. Supporters say they will improve air quality and public health, and provide a range of economic benefits to New England and the rest of the country.
“Massachusetts is uniquely poised to prove that this works, and to capture the economic opportunities in the future,” said Senator Edward J. Markey in a phone interview.
Massachusetts would have to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions, as measured by megawatt hour of electricity, nearly 18 percent below 2005 levels. New Hampshire would have to cut its emissions by about 23 percent; Rhode Island by 16 percent; Maine by 11 percent; and Connecticut by 7 percent. Vermont lacks fossil fuel power plants large enough to be subject to the new rules.
State officials are required to submit a plan for achieving their emissions targets. That could include closing fossil fuel plants, using more wind and solar energy, boosting energy efficiency, or joining a so-called “cap and trade” program that sets limits on overall emissions and allows states to sell pollution allowances to power plants.
In New England, where there are only two remaining coal plants, the states have already cut their power plant emissions by more than 40 percent since 2005, the equivalent to removing 245,000 vehicles from the road, energy officials say.
They have done that through their participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a group of nine states in the Northeast that have pioneered trading pollution allowances.
“RGGI has been so successful that Massachusetts will have almost met our 2030 goal by 2020,” Markey said. “The only question now is how much we will beat it by.”
He said New England’s experience proves that the new national rules can curb emissions, improve public health, and stimulate the economy. The region’s economy grew by 8 percent since the region’s cap and trade program began in 2009, while Massachusetts has created some 100,000 clean energy jobs, Markey said.
Curt Spalding, administrator of the EPA’s New England office, said in a statement that the new regulations will “maintain an affordable, reliable energy system, while cutting pollution and protecting our health and environment.”
The regulations require Massachusetts to replace enough power from fossil fuel plants to supply about 320,000 homes.
A state law has already committed Massachusetts to cutting its carbon emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent below by 2050.
In recent years, the state has reduced its reliance on coal. Last year, the Mt. Tom power plant in Holyoke became the last of the state’s three coal plants to schedule a permanent shutdown. The Salem Harbor Power Station closed last year, while Brayton Point in Somerset is scheduled to stop operating in 2017.
While the state has increased solar and wind energy, they still supply only about 2 percent of Massachusetts’s power. About 58 percent of the state’s energy now comes from natural gas and 19 percent from nuclear energy, while oil supplies about 9 percent and coal about 3 percent.
The phasing out of the relatively inexpensive, reliable power from fossil fuel plants has long raised concerns about costs and where the state will get a dependable source of power from in the future.
Officials in the Baker administration declined interview requests, but in several statements sent by e-mail, they said they expect the state will be able to cut its carbon emissions.
“We intend to meet the deadlines,” said Ed Coletta, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
He said the emission cuts in recent years coincided with the state’s “reducing energy bills, preserving electricity system reliability, and creating local jobs and economic growth.”
In a separate statement, Katie Gronendyke, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said the state would meet is energy needs with “a balanced approach of renewable energy investments, increasing energy efficiency, and expanding natural gas capacity.”
In rare synchronicity, representatives of the energy industry and environmental groups agreed that the rules have more pros than cons for New England.
“It doesn’t look like this will require more than a slight tightening of the cap on [pollution] allowances,” said Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, the trade association of the region’s power providers.
Bradley Campbell, incoming president of the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston, said he hopes other states learn from the joint approach to curbing emissions in New England.
“It’s only fair that other states have to cut more, given that they’re a much greater contributor to overall emissions,” he said.
David Abel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.