Obama's boldest move on carbon comes with perils

2014-06-01 18:20
Barack Obama (File, AP)

Barack Obama (File, AP)

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Washington - The new pollution rule the Obama administration plans to announce on Monday will be a cornerstone of the president's environmental legacy and arguably the most significant US environmental regulation in decades.

But it's not one the White House wanted.

As with other issues, the regulation to limit the pollution blamed for global warming from power plants is a compromise for President Barack Obama, who again finds himself caught between his aspirations and what is politically and legally possible.

It will provoke a messy and drawn-out fight with states and companies that produce electricity, and may not be settled until the eve of the next presidential election in 2016, or beyond. Critics say the plan will drive up costs, kill jobs and damage a fragile economy.

At the crux of the problem is Obama's use of a 1970 law that was not intended to regulate the gases blamed for global warming. Obama was forced to rely on the Clean Air Act after he tried and failed to get Congress to pass a new law during his first term.

When the Republicans took over the House of Representatives, the goal became impossible and Obama had to fall back to an alternate plan.

"For anybody who cares about this issue, this is it," Heather Zichal, Obama's former energy and climate adviser, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "This is all the president has in his toolbox."

Carbon dioxide

The rule will tap the president's executive powers to tackle the single largest source of the pollution blamed for heating the planet: carbon dioxide emitted from power plants.

They produce about 40% of the electricity in the US and about one-third of the carbon pollution that makes the US the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

"There are no national limits to the amount of carbon pollution that existing plants can pump into the air we breathe. None," Obama said on Saturday in his weekly radio and internet address released on Saturday.

"We limit the amount of toxic chemicals like mercury, sulphur, and arsenic that power plants put in our air and water. But they can dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air. It's not smart, it's not safe, and it doesn't make sense," he said.

Traditionally, the president records his weekly address at the White House. But on Friday, Obama travelled to Children's National Medical Centre, where medical equipment and white lab coats formed the backdrop for Obama to argue that by targeting carbon dioxide, his administration is shifting the US away from dirty fuels that dump harmful pollutants into the air. He also met young asthma patients there, the White House said.

"In America, we don't have to choose between the health of our economy and the health of our children," he said.

White House officials have been fanning out across Washington and the country to build support and reassure those concerned about the coming rules.

Among those worried: a number of Democrats from conservative areas who have openly criticised the rules as they prepare for difficult re-election fights in November. Obama will echo his argument that the rules will benefit public health during a conference call on Monday organised by the American Lung Association and other health groups.

The specifics of the plan have been closely guarded. Environmental advocates and industry representatives alike are anxiously awaiting details such as the size of the reductions the government will mandate and what baseline those reductions will be measured against.

"We all want clean air and clean water," Republican Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming said in the weekly Republican address. "We don't want costly regulations that make little or no difference, that are making things less affordable. Republicans want electricity and gas when you need it, at a price you can afford."

It will cost jobs

The Chamber of Commerce, an influential pro-business lobbying group, said the rule would cost $50bn to the economy and kill jobs.

But Obama accused special interests and likeminded lawmakers of repeating false claims about harmful economic effects from the new rules, which the EPA is already preparing to defend in court once the inevitable legal challenges roll in. Every time the US has sought to clean up its air and water, cynics have cried wolf, only to be proved wrong, Obama said.

Obama asserted that in their first year in effect, the rules will prevent up to 100 000 asthma attacks and 2 100 heart attacks. In fact, scientists have said there's no direct connection between greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and asthma attacks or other respiratory illnesses.

But coal-fired power plants that emit high levels of greenhouse gases also pump other pollutants into the air that do affect health.

The new rule to be released on Monday would allow states to require power plants to make changes such as switching from coal to natural gas or enact other programs to reduce demand for electricity and produce more energy from renewable sources.

They also can set up pollution-trading markets as 10 other states already have done to offer more flexibility in how plants cut emissions. Plans from states won't be due until 2016, but the rule will become final a year before.

Some Democratic lawmakers worried about re-election have asked the White House, along with Republicans, to double the length of the rule-making comment period, until after this November's elections.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy and other government officials have promoted the proposal's flexibility as way to both cut emissions and ensure affordable electricity. But that flexibility could backfire.

Some states, particularly those heavily reliant on fossil fuels, could resist taking action, leading the federal government to take over the programme.

Lawyers for states and industry also are likely to argue that controls far afield of the power plant violate the law's intent.

The rule probably would push utilities to rely more on natural gas because coal emits about twice as much carbon dioxide. The recent oil and gas drilling boom in the US has helped lower natural gas prices and, by extension, electricity prices.

But it still generally is cheaper to generate power with coal than with natural gas. Also, natural gas prices are volatile and can lead to fluctuations in power prices.

The rule will push the US closer to the 17% reduction by 2020 it promised other countries at the start of Obama's presidency, it will fall far short of the global reductions scientists say are needed to stabilise the planet's temperature. That's because US fossil-fuelled power plants account for 6% of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Read more on:    us  |  environment

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