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Steam and smoke rise from the cooling towers and chimneys of the Robert W. Scherer power plant in Juliette, Georgia, the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the U.S.

Steam and smoke rise from the Robert W. Scherer coal power plant in Juliette, Georgia, the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the United States. Coal plants likely will be under pressure to upgrade equipment or close in the wake of anticipated emissions standards from the Obama administration.


Christina Nunez

National Geographic

Published May 29, 2014

U.S. President Barack Obama's announcement of new limits on carbon emissions from the nation's existing power plants is a few days away, but the political messaging battle over what is likely to be Obama's most significant action on climate change already is heating up.

The pending rules from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are widely expected to set emission-reduction targets for existing power plants and allow states to craft their own plans for how to meet the standard. Those options could include increasing efficiency, retrofitting existing plants, and boosting the production of energy from renewables and natural gas.

The EPA released the proposed rules for future power plants last fall. But new rules for emissions from existing plants—which account for 39 percent of energy-related U.S. emissions—could have a much greater impact. The stakes are huge for the coal industry, which accounts for three quarters of those power sector emissions and stands to be hit hardest by new standards, and for states such as Kentucky and West Virginia that depend heavily on coal for power generation. (See related story: "Clean Coal Test: Power Plants Prepare to Capture Carbon.")

The stakes also are huge for Obama, who has little chance of pushing major climate legislation through a divided Congress but has vowed to take meaningful action against emissions that raise carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. (See related story: "Can the Senate Force Approval of the Keystone Pipeline?")

The announcement expected on Monday will come less than a month after the White House released a sweeping assessment of climate change's impact on the United States. The report echoed scientists' warnings that climate change is increasing the risk of extreme weather, food and water shortages, health problems, and other society-changing impacts. (See related story: "Federal Climate Change Report Highlights Risks for Americans.")

Unlike the scientific community, U.S. politicians and interest groups are deeply divided over climate change and questions of how much government should do to address it. Many Democrats, environmentalists, and others support Obama's move, while many Republicans and pro-business groups say the new carbon restrictions amount to an expensive overreach in regulation.

That chasm has been on full display this week in Washington, where interest groups and analysts have used a barrage of reports and briefings to praise or criticize the likely parameters of Obama's plan.

"Show of hands: Who is *not* releasing a report sometime in the next week about EPA's carbon pollution rules for power plants?" Ken Ward Jr., a reporter for West Virginia's Charleston Gazette, wrote on Twitter last week.

"Pivotal Battle"

A leading voice in favor of Obama's plan is the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental organization whose own antipollution plan is widely seen as a template for what the administration will propose.

During a briefing the NRDC held Wednesday, David Goldston, the group's director of government affairs, said that the coming restrictions aimed at reducing carbon emissions represent "the pivotal battle on climate change for U.S. domestic politics. Really for the first time, climate is going to be front and center as the national issue." (Take the quiz: "What You Don't Know About Climate Change Science.")

The NRDC said that by 2020, the new standards could cut carbon pollution levels 35 percent below 2005 levels, prevent thousands of premature deaths from respiratory disease, lower consumer electric bills, and stimulate investments of up to $121 billion in energy efficiency and renewables.

As the NRDC team spoke, the pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce was releasing a considerably darker assessment of the expected EPA standards, using NRDC's proposal as a basis. The chamber predicted that the new rules would cost the U.S. economy more than $50 billion in productivity because of "spending in pursuit of regulatory compliance rather than economic expansion," result in 224,000 job losses, and add up to $17 billion in consumer costs each year for the next 15 years.

"Our analysis shows that Americans will pay significantly more for electricity, see slower economic growth and fewer jobs, and have less disposable income, while a slight reduction in carbon emissions will be overwhelmed by global increases," Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy, said in a statement. It was a reminder of the skepticism that conservative and business groups have expressed over whether other nations—particularly China, which is responsible for about a quarter of the world's carbon emissions and is burning increasing amounts of coal—will follow Obama's lead in restricting such emissions. (See related story: "How Much Is U.S. to Blame for Made-in-China Pollution?")

The chamber argues that the costs for companies to comply with the new regulations, along with higher energy prices and lost jobs, will reduce productivity, particularly in the southern Atlantic states, because of the "need to replace large portions of coal generation."

The NRDC anticipated the chamber's announcement in its own briefing. "Even in the business community, there are a lot of companies that support moving ahead with carbon standards," said Peter Altman, director of the NRDC's climate and clean air campaign. "The U.S. Chamber does not speak for the United States business community."

He noted that several companies have defected from membership in the chamber because of its stance against emissions regulations.

Churning Out Sound Bites

Other organizations have put out statements along predictable lines.

The industry group American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity has bashed Obama's plan in advance by saying, "We crunched the numbers. There's a lot the NRDC isn't telling you." The coal group has joined other industry-aligned organizations in claiming that new standards on carbon will hurt the economy and raise consumers' electric bills.

On the other side, organizations including the Environmental Defense Fund, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Clean Air Task Force have argued that the new standards will offer an economic boost by encouraging investment in clean energy and efficiency, along with desperately needed action on emissions that will help address climate change and reduce health impacts from air pollution.

At least one analysis from the research group World Resources Institute (WRI) suggests that the dire predictions over the impact of the pending rules could be overblown. WRI and others say that several states will be able to meet the new standards via measures that already are in place.

For example, nine states in the Northeast, as part of a regional cap-and-trade program that sets overall limits on carbon and then allows states to trade permits to pollute, have committed to cut emissions by 45 percent during the next year and by another 2.5 percent a year after that until 2020. And for the ten states that WRI analyzed—including coal-reliant Pennsylvania and Ohio—achieving "moderate to ambitious carbon reductions" would be within reach if those states boost efficiency, add renewable and natural gas capacity, and upgrade existing coal plants. (See related story: "California Tackles Climate Change, But Will Others Follow?")

Passion Surrounds Debate

"Moderate to ambitious" seems like an almost suspiciously bland characterization when compared with some of the other superlative assessments of the plan's potential from both sides. In a conference call Wednesday organized by the environmental group Earthjustice, Alan H. Lockwood, professor emeritus of neurology at the University at Buffalo who has written about the effects of coal burning on health, called the regulations "the most important public health measure of our generation," while the Clean Air Task Force said they are the Obama administration's "single most important climate initiative."

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, on the other hand, said that Obama's plans are "threatening to tip our country over the edge" economically. Perhaps most colorfully, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin said earlier this month that because of the plan, "a lot of people on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum [are] going to die."

Such comments reflect the passion surrounding a debate that almost certainly will be fueled by Obama's announcement of the new emissions rules. The EPA will consider public feedback and then work to finalize the proposal for a one-year period, and then states will have another year to put together their implementation plans after the final rule is issued in 2015. (See related story: "Has Obama Kept Climate Promises Since Last State of the Union?")

The NRDC's Goldston said he expects challenges to the new rules in Congress, at the state level, and in the courts. "We are prepared for all those battles," he said.

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

Randy Cummins
Randy Cummins

I work at a power plant, if you think these power plants that have to pay billions of dollars to capture carbon aren't going to pass that cost on to the end consumer you are crazy. Your electric bill will go up $20-30 per hundred spent. It's a fact, we have already shut down a "sister" plant because it would cost to much. Those 80 workers are already out of a job. China is pumping out carbon at record rates and they do NOT care and will NOT do anything about it. They don't even care about SO3, let alone carbon.

So our economy will prosper by taking $50 extra a month out of EVERY home in the United States to pay their electric bill? Sorry, I just don't see it.

Stephen Moline
Stephen Moline

The "solution" will produce minimal impacts on the climate and will greatly increase the cost of living. The question that needs to be answered comes down to is it worth it? Alarmist think they understand the science, I think they do not understand the costs.

David Jones
David Jones

This is not a story, but, rather an op ed piece. It contains a number of factual errors and unsupported assertions. It is fine to run opinion pieces, but, please mark them as such, rather than leaving believe to assume it is a fact based report.

norman h.
norman h.

It's a shame so many of our politicians (especially those on the right) are so corrupt that we'll never get an honest debate or true facts on this or any other climate/environmental related subject. Didn't we just hear many of the same arguments last week when President Obama declared the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks region as a national monument? It's going to cost jobs, it'll crush the economy, people will die, blah blah, blah, blah, blah. Actually almost anything President Obama does elicits this response so why should this be any different? 

Here's my take on the subject. All a person needs is a small amount of intelligence and common sense to see we humans are destroying the planet and that clean water and air are important to everyone and everything. It doesn't matter if you are republican, democrat, old, young, rich poor, human, bear, bird or fish if we continue along the path we are on we will all perish as will the planet itself.  I say it's time to do something different and at least try to reign in and fix the destruction we've all caused and if that costs me a few extra dollars on my electric bill and the goods I buy then that's a very small price to pay for a healthy planet. 

Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

 Someone needs to give me a thousand dollars to support clean coal. Wire to loot to my acount and I promise by morning I'll be a dyed in the wool lifelong defender of clean coal

Doug Hornby
Doug Hornby

@norman h.  So, if my thoughts don't agree with yours, it can't be a honest debate. That about sum it up?

norman h.
norman h.

@Swiftright Right Only a thousand dollars? Members of congress are getting TENS if not HUNDREDS of thousands of dollars for defending the coal, oil and gas industry so your undercutting yourself.

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