The Obama administration on Monday unveiled a key plank in its climate action plan, proposing a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions from the nation’s 1,000 existing power plants by 2030.
In Utah, the 645-page proposed rule, which faces a year of public comment and revision, was both hailed as a strong step toward stabilizing a warming climate and denounced as an unnecessary drag on the economy.
The plan gives states latitude in crafting their own plans to achieve reduction targets, but pro-business critics blasted it as “pure fantasy” that would snuff out thousands of jobs.
“It’s just another example of more expensive, big-government regulation, and less freedom for American businesses and American families,” said Utah’s Rep. Chris Stewart, a Republican whose 2nd District covers southwest Utah and Salt Lake City. “The costs of this new regulation will be paid for by you and me in the form of increased power bills, fewer jobs, a decrease in the manufacturing sector, and more expensive energy efficient products.”
With its coal-heavy fleet of power stations, Utah could face greater challenges than other states in meeting the 30 percent target, since power generated from coal emits twice as much carbon dioxide as power from natural gas. Research shows that unnaturally high levels of this common gas are trapping heat in the atmosphere.
The impacts of climate change are already hurting the economy and waiting to enact limits could just cost more later, according to Gina McCarthy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator. The proposed rule gives states great flexibility, she told The Salt Lake Tribune in an editorial board visit last month.
“We have to set aggressive targets and allow states to come up with a plan that can work for their fleets,” McCarthy said. “Every state is different so the opportunities to reduce emissions will be different.”
These carbon reductions would have the added benefit of reducing other forms of pollution that take a terrible toll on human health, such as particulate, nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide, she argued.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s staff withheld judgment on Monday.
“The people of Utah want cleaner, affordable, reliable power. Sometimes those goals are not consistent with each other,” said Alan Matheson, the governor’s environmental policy advisor. “As we review the rule we are trying to determine what the costs of the environmental benefits would be. That means looking at what mix of strategies would be needed to meet the rule.”
Coal currently accounts for 37 percent of the nation’s power generation and about twice that level in Utah, although coal’s share is declining as market pressures and regulations usher old coal plants into retirement. But this fossil fuel, which the U.S. holds in vast deposits, will remain a power source, McCarthy said.
“By leveraging cleaner energy sources and cutting energy waste, this plan will clean the air we breathe while helping slow climate change so we can leave a safe and healthy future for our kids,” she said in a press statement. “We don’t have to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment. Our action will sharpen America’s competitive edge, spur innovation, and create jobs.”
But critics predicted carbon regulations on power generation would cost $50 billion a year and stymie an already sputtering economic recovery.
“Particularly in Utah where we are heavily dependent on coal for our power generation,” said Mark Compton, president of the Utah Mining Association, on Monday. “One great economic development advantage we have is our affordable power and this is going to put the affordability and reliability at risk.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, accused the president of aligning his administration with “extreme environmentalists” to push what amounts to an “energy tax.”
“Even though Congress refused to give the Obama administration authority to pursue this radical policy, the President is once again taking unilateral executive action to implement this misguided and unpopular approach,” he said in a statement.
But some observers note the EPA’s plan builds a regulatory framework that supports ongoing trends toward cleaner energy. And by selecting 2005 as the baseline year for calculating progress, it gives credit to the power industry for the moves it has made over the past decade to replace dozens of coal-fired plants with natural gas and renewable sources, said Bryce Bird, the director of the Utah Division of Air Quality.
Obama’s “clean power plan” won endorsements from Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and environmental groups across the nation.
“The common sense regulations will serve to help our region and state address air pollution and the unparalleled risk to our well-being from climate disruption,” Becker said in a statement. “We have a collective, moral obligation to make responsible decisions on behalf of the health of our families and children, and the long-term viability and livability of our community.”
Many groups predicted the proposed carbon-reducing rules will spur economic development.
“These life-saving protections could not come at a more critical time. Climate disruption and extreme weather in Utah have already cost over $137 million in federal disaster relief for 2011 and 2012 alone,” said Tim Wagner, Utah representative for the Sierra Club. “By moving to clean energy sources like wind and rooftop solar, we’ll create tens of thousands of American jobs and billions of dollars in new investment. Cutting pollution that harms our communities will also save billions of dollars in health costs, disaster cleanup, and disaster recovery costs.”