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The Capitol dome looms behind smokestacks of a coal-fired power plant.

The Capitol dome looms behind smokestacks of a coal-fired power plant in Washington, D.C. Obama announced plans Tuesday to issue new emissions regulations for U.S. power plants as part of a wider strategy to address climate change.

Phtotograph by Tyrone Turner, National Geographic

Brian Handwerk

For National Geographic

Published June 25, 2013

President Obama launched his climate change policy effort Tuesday in a speech that invoked Hurricane Sandy's assault on New York, the drought's devastation in the Midwest, and a recent heat wave in Alaska. "Americans are already paying the price of inaction," he said. "Our planet is changing in ways that will have profound impacts on all humankind."

"As a President, as a father and as an American, I'm here to say, 'We need to act,'" said Obama in a speech Tuesday at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. "I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that's beyond fixing." (See related "Five Reasons for Obama to Sell Climate Change as a Health Issue.")

With his sleeves rolled up as the sun beat down on the outdoor podium, Obama said he would direct the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to write the first ever regulations limiting carbon emissions from U.S. power plants. He noted that there are no limits, "none, zero" on carbon pollution from power plants, even though sulfur and toxics like mercury are curbed. He said the scientific consensus was overwhelming and the time was overdue for action on the "unlimited dumping" of carbon emissions by power plants: "It's not right. It's not safe. And it needs to stop." (See related story: "California Tackles Climate Change, But Will Others Follow?")

Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, hailed the step as a good start for tackling greenhouse gas emissions from the most carbon-intensive energy source. "Given that they've been putting the groundwork in place dating back to the beginning of the first term, it's been a long time coming," she said. "It's our single largest source of carbon pollution in this country—our coal fired power plants—and we are in a race against time."

U.S. power plants generate one-third of the nation's greenhouse gases.

A Supreme Court decision from 2007 gave the White House jurisdiction over existing plant emissions.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) used that power to craft plans to cut carbon from new plants, but those regulations have been on hold while the agency addresses objections raised by the power industry, which has argued that the technology to meet the new standards does not exist.

The standard (about 1,000 pounds of CO2 for every megawatt-hour of electricity produced) would be tough for prospective coal plants to meet without incorporating new technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS). And CCS currently doesn't make much bottom-line sense because there is no viable carbon market in the U.S. to fund the expensive technology. (See related story: "Amid Economic Concerns, Carbon Capture Faces a Hazy Future.")

Obama issued a memorandum directing the EPA to issue the regulation on new power plants by September, and to draw up proposed standards for existing power plants within one year.

"I think many people don't realize that there are no regulations in place whatsoever to limit carbon pollution from coal plants," Hitt added. "So it's long overdue. And to get these standards across the finish line during the President's term we've got to get started."

Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, called power plant carbon-emissions standards "the single most important thing we can do, as a nation, to confront this widening scourge" of climate change. "The President nailed it," she said. "This can't wait."  (See related: "10 Ways Obama Could Fight Climate Change.")

Coal Cries Foul

While Tuesday's announcement may be a milestone real change will likely be slower to arrive. It could take years to ready the complex set of regulations and they may face legal challenges. Many Republicans view the proposal as an executive office "end-run" to enact regulations that wouldn't make it through Congress. Obama said that he continued to believe that Congress should work on a bipartisan market-based solution on climate change. "I still want to see that happen. I want to work with anyone to make that happen," he said. "But this is a challenge that does not pause for partisan gridlock. It demands our attention now."  (See related story: "Obama Pledges U.S. Action on Climate Change, With or Without Congress.")

Headwinds have already begun blowing from the coal industry, and from politicians who claim the regulations would curb economic growth and raise energy costs. On Monday, prior to the announcement, seven U.S. governors, including two Democrats, asked the President to reconsider the new curbs on coal.

Kentucky Governor Steven Beshear stressed the threat to his state's economy posed by higher electric rates.  "In Kentucky, which is primarily a manufacturing state with many energy-intensive industries, we estimate job losses in the industrial sector to be significant with even moderate increases in electricity rates," he wrote the EPA. "These industries supply the automobiles and appliances used by citizens in New York, California and other states that are not manufacturing-intensive."

"I believe that our nation is best served by an 'all of the above' energy strategy that incorporates all forms of energy," Indiana Governor Mike Pence wrote in his own letter to President Obama.  "We need our wind, solar, nuclear, natural gas and coal resources to power our economy and provide the quality of life Hoosiers and other Americans are accustomed to experiencing."

Kentucky and Indiana are among the states most reliant on electric power generation from coal, according to the latest EIA figures, and have historically enjoyed some of the nation's lowest electricity prices as a result.

Robert M. "Mike" Duncan, president and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), issued his own statement touting coal's environmental improvement over the past decades and expressing concern for the future.

"If EPA proceeds with regulations, they should be based on adequately demonstrated technology and provide an achievable time frame to allow the coal industry to continue advancing clean coal technologies," he said. "If the government creates standards that are not practical, they risk not just shutting down existing plants but also halting the development of additional clean coal technology facilities. Taking America's most significant source of electricity offline would have disastrous consequences for our nation's economy."

Anticipating charges that the new rules would kill jobs and hurt the economy, Obama said past U.S. environmental actions—on chemicals, on fuel economy, on ozone depletion—always spurred innovation that proved doomsayers wrong. "If you look at our history, don't bet against American industry," he said. "Don't bet against American workers. Don't tell folks that we have to choose between the health of our children or the health of our economy."

Heated political debate over the proposal could further muddle Obama nominee Gina McCarthy's chances of confirmation as EPA administrator, which has languished for more than a month. McCarthy currently runs EPA's air office.

While coal currently dominates the electric power structure its share has slipped rapidly, falling from almost 50 percent of all U.S. electricity in 2005 to just 40 percent today according to EIA statistics. Coal's loss is due to gains in both natural gas and renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

The latest EIA figures show 589 coal plants were operating at the end of 2011. Sierra Club's Hitt noted that the retirement of large, coal-fired plants, many of which date back half a century or more, is already under way.  "Since the beginning of 2010 we've had 145 coal-fired power plants announce that they will be retired," she explained.

But other plants have planned to invest big money in retrofits with the hope of keeping the coal fires burning. The Tennessee Valley Authority's Gallatin Fossil Plant, near Nashville, is set for a $1.1 billion environmental upgrade, a suite of sulfur dioxide scrubbing and ozone-busting equipment that operators hope will enable it to produce power through the next century. (The Sierra Club and other groups have filed a lawsuit to block the planned upgrades at Gallatin.)

Now, the new suite of regulations might either validate that commitment or make it look like a very expensive mistake.

Gas Boom

In pursuing his climate change policy now, Obama has an advantage that was not entirely clear when he took office four years ago: the ready availability of a coal alternative—abundant natural gas. The practice of high-volume water fracturing to release gas trapped in shale deposits, known as fracking, has drastically reshaped the U.S. energy picture.

Natural gas formations including the Marcellus in the Northeast, Barnett and Eagle Ford in Texas, Fayetteville in Arkansas, and Haynesville in Louisiana have provided enough gas to not only satisfy domestic demand but to launch plans for the U.S. to export natural gas as well.

New restrictions would accelerate the switching from coal to natural gas that is already under way in the U.S. electricity market. As long as natural gas prices remain low, that will keep the costs of the plan down, can said Kenneth Medlock III, director of the Center for Energy Studies at Rice University's Baker Institute in Texas.

"In a lot of ways the sort of renaissance we've seen in 'upstream' in North America, particularly in natural gas, made the decision to come down a bit more heavy-handedly on coal easier," Medlock explained. "One of the things you worry about is whether new regulations will bring burdensome energy costs. Lots of relatively low-priced natural gas really limits the chance that electric rates will rise dramatically and that's long been the cry of coal."

But those hoping to see the era of coal power wind down will still have quite a long wait, Medlock said, if they cast their eyes worldwide.

"King Coal is not going to die," he said. "There has been tremendous demand for coal globally and we've seen U.S. exports of coal rising to Asia and Europe, even, surprisingly, to Germany where the green movement is so powerful. So I think while we'll stop burning as much here because of environmental restraints we'll export it. The industry isn't going away and we have more than 25 percent of the world's coal resources locked up here in the United States." (Related: As U.S. Cleans Its Energy Mix, It Ships Coal Problems Abroad.)

Obama also addressed what has been perhaps the biggest issue of contention between his administration and climate activists: The pending decision whether to permit construction of the Keystone XL pipeline to transport larger volumes of oil from Canada's tar sands to the refining centers of Texas. He said that the U.S. State Department is finishing its analysis of whether the pipeline is in the national interest, but that climate change would be a key consideration. "Our nation's interest will only be served if it doesn't exacerbate" carbon emissions' net effects, he said. "The pipeline's impact on the climate will be absolutely critical to the decision allowing the project to go forward." (See related "Interactive: Mapping The Flow of Tar Sands Oil" and "Keystone Pipeline Path Marks New Battle Line in Oklahoma.")

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

30 comments
Osmand Charpentier
Osmand Charpentier

The offer of petroleum reached  the peak. 

Raise prices and reduce consumption, that is: kill the poorest ( of course, also with wars) and decrease the job offer (of course: ¡being a soldier is good job!); is the great recommendation for those who only know about money and power. Panama has  the solution : The OCEANOGENIC POWER.

Who decides against dismissing this discovery  to proceed with the crisis, have the excuse to stop the economy, putting money in banks, and thus achieve increased profits achieved with rising prices for energy and commodities?

That is the folly: ¿When an elitist executive board has changed their decisions without direct intervention of God?

By these means (INTERNET), recently I met unknown details of the dispute between Edison and Tesla, both brains imported to the USA, that today allow us to judge that it was nonsense to gain the market.

The U.S. government chose right thing of both, and this is what makes to a nation great. But the foolishness persists, because it is the common.

Oceanogenic Power, hydropower, cheap, renewable, clean, scalable, enough, and near USA, is the solution for those who seek the truth for love, finds it, and takes advantage of it.

http://academia.edu/1478086/OCEANOGENIC_POWER

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renewable_energy_in_Panama

John C.
John C.

"There has been tremendous demand for coal globally and we've seen U.S. exports of coal rising to Asia and Europe, even, surprisingly, to Germany where the green movement is so powerful."

So, hobbling the coal industry here will...increase coal exports there. Net effect, zero on climate.

This will have the effect of increasing our energy costs, and therefore costs of all goods and services. And, it will hurt the job market.

Another pointless, feel good ideological gesture designed to make his left wing base happy, nothing more.

Peace Seeker
Peace Seeker

The Switch Energy Project makes energy fascinating and engaging to encourage a balanced national understanding of our energy future and its economic and environmental issues. It’s a visual learning project, including a ground-breaking documentary, video-driven website, and video-based teaching program. Join Dr. Scott Tinker on a spectacular journey through the world’s leading energy sites, from coal to solar, oil to biofuels, as he discovers the realities of energy today, investigates the challenge of transitioning to alternatives, and gets straight answers from international energy leaders. In the end, he lays out a path to our energy future that is both surprising and remarkably pragmatic.

http://www.cultureunplugged.com/play/11766

Michael MacLean
Michael MacLean

With the implementation of responsible and sensible energy policy, the United States can curtail environmental harm, fortify its electrical infrastructure, and strengthen its economy by opening up various underutilized renewable energy markets. As an international leader, the administration must uphold its commitment to strictly regulate dirty, centralized power plants. Clean local energy, known as distributed generation, is a much sounder investment, and will provide America’s future generations with the safe and reliable power that they deserve by placing solar and wind projects close to demand – reducing inefficiencies and transmission line maintenance costs.

Distributed generation (DG) of renewable energy, complemented by intelligent grid (IG) solutions, can provide all communities with the clean and reliable power that they deserve. In order to cost-effectively enhance grid resilience and energy security in the United States and mitigate the impacts of future natural disasters and outages, legislators and utilities must adapt policy framework that champions decentralized, diversified power generation on an intelligent grid.

Any electrical system dependent on centralized generation and long-distance transmission is inherently susceptible to massive failures, and our system has proven this time and again.  Each day, nearly 500,000 Americans spend at least two hours without electricity, while brownouts and blackouts grind economic activity to a halt – costing the country up to $188 billion annually. In addition to disrupting our economy, power failures also jeopardize public safety by impairing critical services, such as water, sewage treatment, heating, and cooling.

Transitioning towards a modern power system – characterized by high levels of distributed generation (DG) integrated with intelligent grid (IG) solutions – will enhance power system resilience, minimize economic losses and keep Americans safe.  Local energy production will mitigate the impact of any single power station or transmission line failure. IG solutions – such as demand response, advanced inverters, and energy storage – will increase grid reliability by enabling local balancing of supply and demand for energy. A modern grid will lay the foundation for standalone energy “islands” to provide continuous power for essential services during widespread grid failures.  In fact, several universities and research facilities successfully relied on campus energy islands for power during Hurricane Sandy’s costly and prolonged outages.

Now is the time for Obama to step forward and advocate for a 21st century energy system with high levels of clean local energy as the best solution for our nation’s health, environment, and economy.

To learn more about the creation of a 21st century energy system, check out http://www.clean-coalition.org/unleashing-clean/dgig-initiative/

Zoltan Ban
Zoltan Ban

I think this is a sad moment for humanity, and its chances to have a sustainable future.  While many will see this as a victory for the environmental movement, it will in fact turn into defeat for two reasons.  The first reason is that on a global scale, this will not lead to a meaningful reduction in emissions.  We already saw this with Kyoto, where emissions rose 42% over two decades, since 1990, while in the absence of Kyoto, which caused great economic harm to those who voluntarily signed up, emissions would have increased about 43%.  Hardly worth the self-inflicted damage that Europeans inflicted on their economy, which brings me to the second reason, why this is a failure.  With the outsourcing of emissions, economic activity, including jobs will be outsourced as well, creating a backlash against the very concept of sustainability.

Folks, if we want to save the planet, we have to dump the idealism, and start adopting some common-sense ideas instead, because even John Nash's (A beautiful mind) game theory has shown us that local, unilateral self-sacrifice for the greater global good is  self-defeating.

 http://zoltansustainableecon.blogspot.com/2013/06/john-nash-versus-environmental-movement.html

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth like.author.displayName 1 Like

@Zoltan Ban I've never understood this use of the term 'humanity' (always with a lower case 'h') for Mankind Zoltan. Surely, when we look at how humans are destroying the planet, themselves and 100 species every day there cannot be a more ironic, unsuitable, inapt and ridiculous term for Mankind than 'humanity'. 

Mike Messmann
Mike Messmann

"While coal currently dominates the electric power structure its share has slipped rapidly, falling from almost 50 percent of all U.S. electricity in 2005 to just 40 percent today according to EIA statistics. Coal's loss is due to gains in both natural gas and renewable energy sources like wind and solar."

Coal use has decreased 10% because of which of the following: solar which makes up about 0.5% of our total energy demands, wind which makes about 2.3% of our demands, or the natural gas boom due to fracking which is still not renewable. We're dependent as ever on fossil fuels.

Sandra Krisher-Miller
Sandra Krisher-Miller

While Exxon Spins on Mayflower Tar Sands Spill Cleanup, Oil Threatens Fishing Lake and Arkansas River....ecowatch.com/2013/...taxpayers-foot-bill-tar-sands-cleanup   Cached

... Michigan an Enbridge pipeline sent 819,000 gallons of toxic tar sands crude into the town’s ... If the fund goes broke,the American taxpayer foots the cleanup ...

John L.
John L.

Interesting how Obama chooses when and where to believe "science".  Science has long shown that the unborn child is a human life, and yet he promotes the murder of the most innocent of human life.  Shame on the baby boomers for the United States "killing fields" of abortion.

Nicole G.
Nicole G.

How is that relevant? Have you even considered what would happen to the already gross overpopulation levels if people couldn't make their own decisions on the matter? People don't get abortions because they like too, and personally, I'm happy they're getting abortions because there are enough 'unraised' children and enough group homes. Perhaps if society thorougly encourage contraception to young people abortions wouldn't be an issue in our society anymore.

Eric Paul
Eric Paul like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

@John L. It's interesting how you divert a conversation about pollution and climate change to abortion.  Stick to the topic...but then you wouldn't have anything worthwhile to say/add would you?  I agree with you that abortion is a terrible thing, but the day the Republican party steps out of the stone age and agrees to free birth control for women and men alike, they need to keep their mouths shut on abortion!

John L.
John L. like.author.displayName 1 Like

It's interesting how the President always asks "others" to give up their livelihoods for clean energy, while he and his wife continue with excessive travel by jets, which contribute to CO2 emissions.  If he truly believes CO2 is a problem, it's time for Obama to show it with a drastic change in personal lifestyle.

joseph yechout
joseph yechout like.author.displayName 1 Like

@John L.   He is still on his campaign to " deconstruct" this nation as he and his science Czar aim to do. As he, John Holdren, stated. Ruin the middle class so  they are 

also dependant one government  and the Dems for 

their  support.

Eric Paul
Eric Paul like.author.displayName 1 Like

@joseph yechout Take off your custom-made, metal body suit and put down the gun.  I seriously suggest you seek "HELP"....and fast!

dinkster stuff
dinkster stuff

China and India are the problems...

Eric Paul
Eric Paul

@dinkster stuff The EPA estimates the US at about 19% and China at about 23%.  It wasn't until recently that China exceeded the US's production of greenhouse gases.  So, overall, the US has been the worst by far in releasing CO2 and other harmful gases into our atmosphere.  India is only at about 6%.  Get your facts straight before you post!

Nancy Smith
Nancy Smith

Edward Marineves>>   we are the "fat old slobs, the waddling women", the images of a society that prides itself on intellectual arrogance, all while slinging the undesired effects and excesses of existence into the future, for legions of children to suffer with.   the numbers cannot be hidden, as easily as the smell of industrial contaminants that pollutes without knowing any borders.  we don't act until people start to die, its a fact no one seems to learn from. we just dream up new ways to consume ever more energy in a cyclic game of 'putting it off until it's too late".   we breed like rabbits, and yet expect the meadows to sustain the demand for ever increasing food supply. 

Eric Paul
Eric Paul

@Nancy Smith Yes, this is unfortunately true.  Humans Beings have the ability to be intuitive but rarely act on it.  Most people have a hard time sacrificing short term for long term gains they may never see.  This is why extremely wealthy business owners and politicians won't act on issues like this...because it will decrease their ability to provide a lavish lifestyle for them and their friends while increasing the health of a planet they won't be around to enjoy anyways!  This is the CATCH-22 of so-called "Checks and Balances"!

John C.
John C.

@Eric Paul 

There are 2 billion people in China and India who are trying to lift themselves into the life style that you take for granted and denigrate. If liberal hypocrisy and arrogance were a fuel we'd never run out. 

Nancy Smith
Nancy Smith

every 'fix' we seek to ''secure' the future of the children, is contaminated with the ever present concept of finding a 'market' for these byproducts of our waste laden society.  we have a culture that creates exorbitant levels of toxicity (global and local) for a lifestyle that returns few if any real advances in our survival and the survival of our ecosystem. Obama and the 'profiteers of industry', will never cede their ego to such a simple concept as sacrifice  and actual efforts to limit the CONSUMPTION of energy. (In all forms).  Until humanity faces the ugly truths being hidden by 'marketeers' while they reap unsustainable levels of economic unbalance (grossly disproportionate profit for a zero or net negative effort)   this charade of 'fixing things' with political BS and untenable plans will be our very demise.  reduce your own 'carbon footprint', by eliminating reliance on these egregiously wasteful life cultures we now have in this country.  the children don't need this burden of ecological debt,  we cant pay for it, and surely they will never be able to as well. technology is merely a crutch, just as is religion that obviates the need for war. don't look for profit in this, rather seek a selfless sacrifice for our future.

Edward Marineves
Edward Marineves like.author.displayName 1 Like

We're like an old fat dude on a couch complaining that his health coach says he's gotta stop smoking and get some exercise.   Waah!!!

If we spend the effort to switch over to cleaner sources of energy and keep boosting our energy efficiency, we'll be better off in the long run.  

We'll look back at these days and marvel, you mean they used to burn COAL???  What were they thinking?

Res Non Verba
Res Non Verba

Typo.  "...He noted that there no limits..."  Shouldn't this read "...He noted that there [are] no limits..."

Res Non Verba
Res Non Verba like.author.displayName 1 Like

The IPCC tells us that greenhouse gas emissions must to be stabilized by 2015. That's 18 months from now. But time is shorter than scientists originally projected (See http://www.global-warming-forecasts.com/underestimates.php).  

The clock is ticking.  

Time is short.  

Swift action by politicians is the single most important factor in limiting climate instability.  That's just not just my opinion, that's the conclusion of a major study published earlier this year in Nature. 

One thing is certain. Those who suffer the harsh hand of extreme weather disasters will not have far to look to find the long list of ostrich headed Senators and Congressmen who failed to act this issue. Their names will be chiseled in stone on the tablets of history.

Burnet

Doug L
Doug L

The coal industry should go all out to prove that carbon sequestration works or it will find itself out of business. 

Xira Arien
Xira Arien

Great. So America gets a little cleaner.

The problem? The world is now global. The markets are all global. If the cheap energy is in some other country, they'll go there to produce their stuff. 

Unless we erect trade barriers to keep goods produced by coal-burning foreign competitors out of our markets coal burning will not decrease. Since that's not going to happen, this is just kabuki theater.

Visit my blog, the liberal leaning libertarian, at http://llltexas.com

Eric Paul
Eric Paul

@Xira Arien I love how people like you only want to "LEAD" whenever it comes to issues that accommodate your personal beliefs/lifestyle but are perfectly ok with taking a seat on other, more important issues that affect us all.  China's a communist nation...so should we convert to communism simply because they're doing it?  China looks the other way when parents kill their own children after birth, if it's not the right sex...so should we do that too, just because China does it?  If we based our actions and inaction off of what others do, we wouldn't be the great country we are today! 

Doug L
Doug L like.author.displayName 1 Like

@Xira Arien difficult for us to convince other nations to cut emissions unless we first take meaningful steps

clifty chip
clifty chip like.author.displayName 1 Like

As I sit here and type this comment I am exhaling CO2.  Guess what may be coming next in the war on carbon.  

I live on a farm in East TN, an organic natural product farm by the way.  Five miles from my farm is a TVA coal power plant, the Kingston Fossil Plant, recently equipped with a new scrubber clean exhaust smokestack.  

A couple of years ago the fly ash pond dam broke and released a huge amount of coal ash into the Emory/Clinch rivers.   No one was injured in the spill and the area is now clean and has recovered. 

About 25 miles from my farm TVA is operating the Watts Bar nuclear power plant and is working to complete a second nuclear plant at that site. 

I do not fear the coal plant or the carbon emissions, however I do fear the nuclear plant.  If there is a problem or release at the nuclear plant then we could have a very serious and dangerous long term situation here in East TN. 

Christopher Hall
Christopher Hall

@clifty chip As Coal continues to fall by the wayside, here in South Carolina, nuclear will take the place. We have a facility (VC Summer) that is once again going over budget which means a rate hike. I don't want the coal, but I too don't want the nukes. No plan for dealing with the waste and radiation kills. 

William Powhida
William Powhida like.author.displayName 1 Like

Hopefully, we will prevent the extinction of our kind by doing an extinction number on some of the energy moguls who apparently could care less if the envirnoment is fit for my children or their children and grandkids. American capitalism with its anarchistic insistence  that what is good for industry is good for America! ain't necessarily the right road to travel down!!

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