Environment & Science

FAQ: What do the EPA's new climate rules for existing power plants mean?

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 02:  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy announces new regulations for power plants at EPA headquarters June 2, 2014 in Washington, DC. Bypassing Congress and using President Barack Obama's 'Climate Action Plan,' the 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.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 02: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy announces new regulations for power plants at EPA headquarters June 2, 2014 in Washington, DC. Bypassing Congress and using President Barack Obama's 'Climate Action Plan,' the 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. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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The Obama Administration announced new rules to combat climate change Monday. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the goal is to cut carbon pollution by 30 percent by the year 2030 through new limits at existing power plants.

"This is not just about disappearing polar bears or melting ice caps, although I like polar bears and I know about melting ice caps,” McCarthy said. “This is about protecting our health and our homes."

Why does this new rule target power plants, and what’s it going to do?

Existing power plants are major sources of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that contribute to a warming climate. About 40 percent of the total carbon emissions produced by the United States are from these plants. The U.S. is a major carbon polluter globally. So this one rule aims to shrink a source of carbon emissions that presently represents 6 percent of global greenhouse gases.

RELATED: Reactions pour in to EPA rules

The details of the rule are complicated. Previous efforts to control other types of air pollution have been set facility-by-facility. But this rule sets an overall “mass-based system.” So there’s a reduction number each state has to hit, but not a number for each power plant.

The EPA is going to use 2005 as a baseline. The cuts have to be 30 percent from what the emissions were that year.

We’re already seeing criticism of that choice. Over at Slate, Eric Holthaus points out that the energy industry has already begun cutting carbon. So, he argues, 30 percent isn’t as large as it seems.

Is every state going to do the same thing?

Nope. For one thing, states have different sources of power, so not every state has a heavy carbon burden.

For another, some states are already doing more than the federal government will require. As President Obama pointed out Saturday in his weekly radio address:

Nearly a dozen states are already implementing their own market-based systems to reduce carbon pollution, and over a thousand mayors have signed agreements to cut their cities' carbon pollution. The idea of setting higher standards to cut pollution at our power plants is not new, it's just time for Washington to catch up with the rest of the country.

California, of course, is one of the states the president’s referring to. In 2006, California passed AB 32, a landmark law that sets a goal for the state to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. And it keeps going after that. 

If we’re already taking steps, how will this new EPA rule affect California?

It could make California’s carbon market more attractive.

To meet AB 32 requirements, California created its own carbon market. That market has been sort of a sleepy place: while it’s been considered mostly successful, it hasn’t fulfilled the promise it originally offered, when it seemed as though more businesses from other states would participate.

EPA Administrator McCarthy suggested in her remarks Monday that one of the ways for states to meet this rule would be to “hang out with other states," i.e. join their carbon markets.

So is a 30 percent cut ambitious – or not?

Maybe yes. As a nation, we rely heavily on coal. Most of our emissions come from coal-fired electricity plants at least 40 years old.  Reducing emissions from those plants would be significant.

Still, the EPA estimates that even if these rules go into effect, the U.S. will still get 30 percent of its electricity from coal-fired plants in the year 2030. The new rules represent a shift, but it’s not an elimination of the worst kind of pollution. 

Why is the EPA acting now?

President Obama has upped his rhetoric on climate change policy since his second inauguration. Congress still isn’t playing ball, and no serious efforts at broad climate policy have gotten traction in the last few years. This rule about existing power plants is the largest as yet untouched part of climate policy. The president maintains it can be accomplished directly through the executive branch under the Clean Air Act, so Congressional approval isn’t needed to do it.

What’s been the reaction from the energy industry to this?

It's been mixed. It's no surprise the renewable energy industry is supportive. Others, particularly representatives from the coal industry call the rules a drag on the economy and a job killer. 

The Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a group funded by the coal industry, claims that getting rid of coal will cost consumers upwards of $13 billion a year.

What's next for these rules?

The EPA is going to circulate them, and wants to finalize them. There may be legal challenges. In fact, there likely will be.

Federal authority for the rule comes from the Clean Air Act. States like West Virginia, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Alaska and Texas may challenge that authority, as might some industry groups.

Administratively, EPA may be on solid enough ground. A longstanding principle of federal administrative law is that courts grant deference to an agency like the EPA unless its actions are “arbitrary and capricious.” EPA has worked to establish groundwork for the law by holding workshops and meetings with affected industries and states. The rule promotes flexibility to try to minimize opposition. So legal challenges may have a hard time succeeding.