EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy speaks at a climate workshop at Georgetown University in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

On Friday the Environmental Protection Agency announced rules to cap carbon pollution from new power plants, the first regulation of its kind. The EPA’s proposal would cut emissions from new coal plants to roughly half as much carbon dioxide as today’s coal-fired generators pump into the air.

The new rules, along with guidelines for existing plants still to be written, are the heart of the Obama administration’s climate action plan. Power plants emit about 40 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gases, more than any other single source, and limiting their output is one of the most significant moves the administration can make to combat climate change without cooperation in Congress.

The rules announced today won’t do anything to reduce current carbon pollution, because they apply only to plants not yet built. They do set an important legal precedent for the regulation of carbon under the Clean Air Act, which the agency will rely on when it puts forward performance targets for existing plants next year.

The proposal sets separate standards for new coal and gas fired plants, unlike a similar rule suggested last year. According to EPA officials, most gas-fired power plants built recently already meet the new standards, which would permit new facilities to emit 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour, or 1,100 pounds for smaller plants. Coal plants would face a limit of 1,100 pounds per megawatt hour, or a slightly stricter standard averaged over seven years. Today’s coal plants emit about 1,800 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour, according to EPA.

“We want to send a signal to the market today about what kind of facilities the US government thinks are going to be effective in a carbon-constrained world,” an EPA official said Friday about the new rule on a conference call with reporters. In other words, said the Sierra Club’s Melinda Pierce, the standards are meant to drive investment decisions away from coal and to cleaner sources of energy.

Legislators from coal regions and industry leaders have already linked the new rules to the “war on coal,” and opposition will mount during the sixty-day comment period and while the EPA finalizes the rule, which should be complete next year. Legal challenges are likely to assert that Carbon Capture and Storage (CSS), the technology that several facilities currently under construction are implementing, is not viable or affordable. West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin denounced the new standards, saying they would “have devastating impacts to the coal industry.”

Prior to the new standards, however, interest in new coal-fired plants had all but disappeared. “A sudden increase in spot prices for Appalachian coal during 2008 has been followed by a sustained decline in the delivered cost of natural gas…favoring natural gas‐fired units over coal‐fired units,” the Energy Information Administration wrote in 2012. Cheap natural gas outcompetes coal easily on the energy market, while solar and wind are taking up growing shares of the utility market. “The world has changed,” said Pierce. “The era of building a bunch of new coal plants to add to the fleet is really over.”

More critical for the climate and the future of the coal industry are guidelines for the more than 1,500 power plants operating across the country. The EPA’s process for regulating existing facilities will differ considerably from the rule proposed today, in that the agency will ask states to put forward their own plan to meet performance targets that the EPA will propose in June 2014. The agency launched an outreach campaign last month to engage regional administrators, state governments, industry, public health organizations and environmental stakeholders in the development of the new guidelines. It isn’t clear what kind of benchmark the EPA will ask states to meet; options include an emissions cap similar to the rule for new plants, an efficiency standard or a regional cap-and-trade program.

Regulating existing plants will be a costly and complicated process reliant on cooperation from state government. States like Texas, Pierce said, are unlikely to put forward an implementation plan when the EPA issues its guidelines. “It sets up a situation where recalcitrant states may choose not to comply, and then the cop on the beat has to come in and hold them accountable,” she said.

Obama’s stated goal is to see both sets of rules enacted by the time he leaves office in 2017. While “Big Green” organizations lauded the standards proposed today and have expressed optimism about the development of flexible, state-specific regulation of existing plants, the plans are vulnerable to a change of leadership in the White House, and are only a small part of any serious attempt to curb climate change.

Rejecting Keystone XL would be a strong next step, followed by a close look at other infrastructure projects that expedite the burning of fossil fuels like the Flanagan South Pipeline, the government’s eagerness to lease federal lands for oil and coal development and the environmental and health effects of natural gas production. Ultimately, effective federal policy will require voters to hold Congress accountable. With roughly thirty years remaining before the world hits the carbon threshold likely to increase global temperatures beyond the crucial two degrees Celsius mark, today’s announcement should provoke more action than satisfaction.

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