White House Releases Landmark Climate Change Rule

The Obama administration released the final version of the Clean Power Plan last week at a White House ceremony attended by a crowd of administration officials, members of Congress and environmental advocates. This highly anticipated plan is the first comprehensive federal rule to target carbon emissions from existing, new and modified power plants. It is touted as the most ambitious regulation ever aimed at combating climate change. 

 “Over the past decade, even as our economy has continued to grow, the United States has cut our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth. That's the good news,” said President Obama, speaking at the White House.  “But I am here to say that if we want to protect our economy and our security and our children’s health, we're going to have to do more.  The science tells us we have to do more.”

The rule sets emission targets for states’ power-generation sectors, with specific targets designed for each state based on its level of electricity generation from coal, oil, natural gas and renewables such as wind, solar and hydropower. Under the rule, states will be able to develop their own plans to meet the emissions targets, but failure to do so will result in the imposition of a federal plan by the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA.

The White House hopes to achieve a 32 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 from levels measured in 2005. States have until 2018 to submit compliance plans to the EPA and must meet interim targets starting in 2022, two years later than the administration initially proposed last year. 

In a call with reporters shortly after the announcement of the plan, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy outlined major changes to the rule in response to calls from energy companies and states for more flexibility and time to implement power-sector changes. Among the changes outlined by McCarthy were provisions:

  • Giving states two more years to submit plans and begin making emissions cuts;
  • Easing interim goals to measure progress toward final goals;
  • Providing for grid reliability assurance mechanisms;
  • Providing states with a model plan with "trade-ready" elements for swapping compliance credits;
  • Adopting uniform emissions rates and assigning state goals based on energy mixes;
  • Leveling out disparate state targets for emissions reductions;
  • Incentivizing early action to build renewable energy and implement energy efficiency programs in low-income communities;
  • Encouraging a shift toward renewables;
  • Providing states with credits against plan requirements that take into account increases in energy production resulting from carbon-free nuclear generation; and
  • Requiring new plants to employ partial carbon capture and storage technologies.

The rule’s release marks the beginning of what may be another pitched battle for the Obama administration, with Republicans in Congress taking aim at the measure and conservative state leaders readying legal challenges.

In June, a federal appeals court rejected on procedural grounds a lawsuit filed by 14 states to block the proposed rule. The three-judge panel ruled that it does not have the authority to review a rule before it is finalized. 

Now that the final rule has been issued, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has vowed to head back to court to challenge the plan with other opponents.

 “This rule represents the most far-reaching energy regulation in this nation’s history, drawn up by radical bureaucrats and based upon an obscure, rarely used provision of the Clean Air Act,” said Morrisey to The Hill. “We intend to challenge it in court vigorously.”

Republicans in Congress are expected to attempt blocking the rule, though any legislative efforts are unlikely to overcome a presidential veto. The Senate also is considering S. 1324 this fall, which would allow states to opt out of the rules and prevent the EPA from imposing a backup federal plan. 

Unlike the president’s landmark health care legislation—a law passed by Congress—the plan is an executive branch regulatory action that could be undermined by a future president. If voters elect a Republican to the White House in 2016, that candidate could revamp or withdraw the rule,  but if a Democrat is elected, the courts likely would be left to decide whether the rule is legal under the Clean Air Act.