National Geographic News
Cows graze in the shadow of the coal fired Chalk Point Generating Station, on May 29, 2014 in Benedict, Maryland. Next week President Obama is expected to announce new EPA plans to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal fired power plants.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Seen in the background on May 29, 2014, the Chalk Point Generating Station in Benedict, Maryland, is one of many coal-fired power plants that may be affected by new emissions rules.


Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published June 2, 2014

The Obama Administration announced sweeping new rules for existing coal-fired power plants on Monday that would cut emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

The proposed rules mark U.S. President Barack Obama's boldest action to date to address climate change. If successful, the proposal would lead to the first ever rules aimed at carbon emissions from existing power plants.

The much anticipated rules—called the Clean Power Plan—were unveiled by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Monday morning.

The proposal "will maintain an affordable, reliable energy system, while cutting pollution and protecting our health and environment now and for future generations," the agency said in a statement. (See related story: "One Key Question on Obama's Push Against Climate Change: Will It Matter?")

The plan will lead to public health and climate benefits worth an estimated $48 billion to $82 billion in 2030, the agency says.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other critics have said the plan will raise electricity rates and cut jobs, but the Obama Administration counters that fears are overblown and new rules are necessary to protect public safety. Observers say legal challenges are likely, although the EPA expects to uphold the rules.

The public will have 120 days to submit comments on the proposed rules, which will be finalized within one year. Then states will have up to three years to submit their final implementation plans.

The EPA anticipates that by 2030, about 30 percent of the nation's energy mix will come from coal (down from about 37 percent) and 30 percent from natural gas.

For the first time, the EPA announced a proposal to limit carbon emissions from the nation’s 7,000 or so existing power plants with at least one megawatt capacity. The plan allows each state to create its own roadmap to meet required reductions.
Map of state-by-state percentage of total C02 emissions in the U.S. from 2012.

Options for States

To meet the required limits, each state will be given a specific emissions reduction target based on a number of factors, including its past emissions and its mix of energy sources.

Then each state will present a compliance plan. States can draw from a number of options, including joining or starting a cap-and-trade program, which sets limits on emissions, then allows for the purchase and sale of pollution permits; boosting their share of renewable energy in electricity generation; and tightening efficiency standards on plants and energy users.

States will also receive credit for emissions reduction efforts already in process.

"By partnering together we can keep our energy reliable and affordable, while cutting carbon pollution," said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in a YouTube video the White House posted on Monday morning.

Watch EPA administrator Gina McCarthy announce the Clean Power Plant proposal.

The EPA's new proposal stresses that climate change poses a serious risk to the nation, with "far-reaching harmful consequences and real economic costs."

The agency is targeting power plants—the largest stationary emitters of greenhouse gases—as well as the nation's aging infrastructure. By 2025, the average age of coal power plants in the U.S. is projected to be 49 years.

That means that states have an incentive to replace aging plants and diversify their sources of electricity, the EPA says.

Reaction Is Swift

Supporters and detractors were quick to react.

Speaking at Princeton University, longtime environmental advocate Al Gore told students he supports the president's new rules, which he says will help establish the United States' "moral authority" on addressing climate issues.

Gore also tweeted:

In adding his voice to the chorus of support, climate change activist and author Bill McKibben of said the new rules "will help advance the obvious tasks of moving America off coal." And Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, lauded the president for making good "on his promise to American families that his administration would tackle the climate crisis, and clean up and modernize the way we power our country."

On the other hand, Speaker John Boehner tweeted that "the regulations will cost the economy":

Likewise, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky criticized the plan, calling it a "dagger in the heart of the American middle class" that would raise energy prices and decrease reliability.

Joseph Bast, president of the conservative Heartland Institute, chimed in with a statement saying, "This is Obamacare for the environment: guaranteed to raise costs, reduce choices, and destroy an existing industry. By the time EPA is finished, millions of Americans will be freezing in the dark."

In his weekly address Saturday morning, President Obama said the new standards should spur investment in renewable energy and efficiency programs, which will create jobs and produce technology that could be exported to other countries—like China, the world's largest emitter of carbon.

Graphic on power plan.

"In America," he said, "we don't have to choose between the health of our economy and the health of our children."

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

M Mahoney
M Mahoney

 The US is the 2nd largest emitter of CO2 in the world.  In the face of climate change and public health, this is a positive step towards reducing our emission levels.  Wind and solar energy industries could potentially benefit from this policy as power producers start to look at renewable energy rather than retrofitting existing plants. A continued tax incentive for the renewable energy field levels the playing field and allows us to move in a new direction.  Both solar and wind create high paying jobs and spur innovation to create large-scale production supplies.  

Bill Morgan
Bill Morgan

It just seems short sighted and weak.  The easiest of all solutions.  It is like saying, 'I don't know what to do with all the resources of the federal government, so I will drive the cost up and reduce the middle class standard of living further in hopes they will think of something and bail me out'. In the 1960's, carbon dioxide was removed with lithium hydroxide for space craft.  You mean to tell me that 50 years later there hasn't been better CO2 scrubbers developed or new sequestration methods?  Nuclear, Biomass, better solar methods, fuel cell technologies all currently exist.  They do not add to the CO2 in our atmosphere.  I guess all I can do is to keep crowd funding the ideas I think look the most promising.  I give on the media and government.

Andrew Jay Jensen
Andrew Jay Jensen

no, this is not great news.  More rules, more regulations, more poverty, more chaos, more decline...

norman h.
norman h.

Great news, I would have liked to see the percentage higher but it's a start at least. I highly doubt the polluters and the big oil and coal owned republicans (and some dems also) will go for it though. Sad that it's be politicized because by my way of thinking clean air and water not to mention a healthy planet isn't a republican or democrat thing, it's an american thing and we all should be for it.

Lincoln Fong
Lincoln Fong

@Bill Morgan i just read about 2 different solvents in NG companion article, 

Clean Coal Test: Power Plants Prepare to Capture Carbon ...  solvent called Selexol being used in Kemper, Mississippi, and solvent called Amine being used in SaskPower, Canadian plant.


Popular Stories

  • Lost City Found in Honduras

    Lost City Found in Honduras

    A joint Honduran-American expedition has confirmed the presence of extensive pre-Columbian ruins in Mosquitia in eastern Honduras, a region rumored to contain ruins of a lost "White City" or "City of the Monkey God."

  • Astronomers Find a Galaxy That Shouldn't Exist

    Astronomers Find a Galaxy That Shouldn't Exist

    Small, young galaxies should be free of interstellar dust, but an object called A1689-zD1 is breaking all the rules.

  • Cool Polar Bear Pictures

    Cool Polar Bear Pictures

    Take a peek at polar bears playing, swimming, and sleeping in their changing habitat.

The Future of Food

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

See more food news, photos, and videos »