WASHINGTON – The Environmental Protection Agency will propose a regulation today that will cut carbon-dioxide emissions from existing coal plants by up to 30 percent, compared with 2005 levels, by 2030, according to people who have been briefed on the plan and asked for anonymity because it has not been formally announced.
The draft rule would give states and utilities four options of how to meet the new standard, with different emphases on energy efficiency, shifting from coal to natural gas, investing in renewable energy and discounts to encourage consumers to move to off-peak hours.
The rule represents one of the most significant steps the federal government has ever taken to curb the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions, which are linked to climate change, and the draft is sure to spark a major political and legal battle.
Conscious of that, President Barack Obama called a group of Senate and House Democrats on Sunday afternoon to thank them for their support in advance of the proposed rule, according to a White House official who asked for anonymity in order to discuss private conversations with lawmakers.
Ever since a climate bill stalled in the Senate four years ago, environmental and public health activists have been pressing Obama to use his executive authority to impose carbon limits on the power sector, which accounts for 38 percent of the nation’s carbon-dioxide emissions.
Opponents, including coal producers, some utilities and many Republicans, argue that the EPA is using a novel legal approach to demand stringent greenhouse-gas cuts that are not achievable given current technology.
It is unclear whether the proposal ranks as Obama’s most-sweeping climate policy, because the plan would cut 500 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2030. Previous measures to strengthen fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks will cut 2.9 billion metric tons by 2050.
This momentous development raises the bar for controlling carbon emissions in the United States, said Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute.
Steer said that many states are well-positioned to meet or exceed the proposed carbon reductions through existing infrastructure and policies that are already in place. And he said that the proposed standards give states flexibility to implement plans according to their needs.
The Wall Street Journal first reported details of the rule Sunday afternoon.
Much of the electricity sector’s carbon pollution stems from aging, coal-fired power plants. The average U.S. coal plant is 42 years old, according to the EPA, meaning that most of them aren’t nearly as efficient as new ones, although many have been updated.
Some were built when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, according to Exelon chief executive Christopher Crane.
The Associated Press reported Sunday that Indiana ranks fourth nationally for the percentage of electricity it gets from coal-fired power plants. The top three states are West Virginia, Kentucky and Wyoming.
The proposed regulations could also affect natural-gas-fired power plants, which emit about half as many greenhouse gases as coal plants.
The EPA said that natural-gas-fired combined cycle plants in the United States are 14 years old on average.
Several coal industry and business officials have questioned the administration’s approach, saying it will cost coal miners their jobs and could lead to electricity shortages.
The Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a lobbying group that represents energy companies with major investments in coal-fired power plants, has prepared an analysis that cites a study estimating that a phase-out of coal plants could cost consumers $13 billion to $17 billion a year between 2018 and 2033.
There are no off-the-shelf technologies to address carbon, only fuel-switching regardless of expense or energy rationing, the group writes.
Scott Segal, a government relations and communications specialist at the Washington law firm Bracewell & Giuliani, who has been working with the council, said the proposed rule is likely to be expensive, controversial and intrusive for households and small businesses.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has commissioned a separate study, projecting that the proposed rule could cost the U.S. economy an average of $50 billion a year during the next 16 years.
Supporters of the administration’s proposal, meanwhile, argue that it will save Americans money because of the public health benefits that result from cutting power plants’ soot and smog-forming pollutants.
Moreover, they say, renewable energy has become increasingly competitive with fossil fuels.
A joint study by the Harvard School of Public Health and Syracuse University Center for Health and the Global Environment found that a carbon limit on existing plants would reduce these facilities’ sulfur dioxide and mercury by up to 27 percent and their nitrogen oxides by up to 22 percent by 2020.
These conventional pollutants contribute to asthma, other lung diseases and heart attacks.
Michael Brune, executive director of the environmental advocacy group Sierra Club, noted in an interview that a spokesman for the Colorado utility Xcel Energy explained that his company was expanding its investments in solar and wind power because they are the most cost-effective and most reliable.