Obama pollution cuts may take years to work

2014-06-03 11:48
Barack Obama. (File, AP)

Barack Obama. (File, AP)

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Washington - President Barack Obama introduced a politically charged plan to order big and lasting cuts in the pollution discharged by America's power plants. But the plan, though ambitious in scope, wouldn't be fully realised until long after Obama's successor took office and would generate only modest progress worldwide.

Obama's proposal to force a 30% cut in carbon dioxide emissions, by the year 2030 from 2005 levels, drew immediate scorn on Monday from Republicans, industry groups and even a few Democrats who are facing fraught re-election campaigns in energy-dependent states.

Environmental activists were split, with some hailing the plan and others calling it insufficiently strict to prevent the worst effects of global warming.

The effort would cost up to $8.8bn annually in 2030, the EPA projected. But the actual price is impossible to predict until states decide how to reach their targets, a process that will take years.

Obama, in a conference call with public health leaders, sought to head off critics who have argued the plan will kill jobs, drive up power bills and crush the economy in regions of the US.

"What we've seen every time is that these claims are debunked when you actually give workers and businesses the tools and the incentives they need to innovate", Obama said.

Never before has the US sought to restrict carbon dioxide from existing power plants, although Obama's administration is also pursuing the first limits on newly built plants.

US leverage

While the plan would push the nation closer to achieving Obama's pledge to reduce total US emissions by 17% by 2020, it still would fall short of the global reductions scientists say are needed to stabilise the planet's temperature.

Connie Hedegard, the European Union's commissioner for climate change, called the rule "the strongest action ever taken by the US government to fight climate change". But she also said, "All countries, including the United States, must do even more than what this reduction trajectory indicates."

Fossil-fuelled US power plants account for 6% of global carbon dioxide emissions, so even a steep domestic cut affects just a portion worldwide.

And even with the new limits, coal plants that churn out carbon dioxide will still provide about 30% of US energy, according to predictions by the Environmental Protection Agency, down from about 40% today.

Power plants are America's largest source of greenhouse gases, accounting for 38% of annual emissions. Plants have already reduced carbon emissions nearly 13% since 2005, meaning they are about halfway to meeting the administration's goal.

The 645-page proposal forms the linchpin of Obama's campaign to deal with climate change, and aims to give the US leverage to prod other countries to act when climate negotiations resume in Paris next year.

At home, however, the power plant limits won't cut as big a chunk out of greenhouse gas emissions as Obama's move to tackle pollution from cars and trucks. That separate effort is to double fuel economy for vehicles made in model years 2012-25.

And the drawn-out timeline for the power plant plan, coupled with threats by opponents to block it, infused Monday's announcement with uncertainty.

Relying on the four-decades-old Clean Air Act, the EPA is giving customised targets to each state, and then leaving it up to those states to develop plans to meet their targets. Some states will be allowed to emit more and others less, leading to an overall, nationwide reduction of 30%

Although Obama initially wanted each state to submit its plan by June 2016, the draft proposal shows states could get extensions until 2017.

If they join with other states, as New York has done, they could have until 2018, kicking full implementation of the rules well into the next president's administration.

That raises the possibility that shifting political dynamics in Washington could alter the rule's course. Although Obama could veto action by Congress to block the rule, he can't ensure that his successor will do the same. Scuttling the rules would also be easier if Republicans take the Senate in November.

A few Democrats joined a chorus of Republicans in vowing to obstruct the rules legislatively. Republican Nick Rahall, a vulnerable West Virginia Democrat, said he would not only back legislation but also join lawsuits. Republican House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner simply called Obama's plan "nuts".
Read more on:    epa  |  barack obama  |  us  |  environment  |  climate change

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