Energy experts expect showdown over greenhouse gases

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - In Tuesday's State of the Union address, President Barack Obama pledged to continue fighting a problem that caused significant controversy during his first term - climate change.

He contended that the country doubled the distance its cars travel on a gallon of gas and decreased its carbon pollution emissions. He also suggested it was a challenge to meet those goals and predicted more struggle moving forward.

"I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago," Obama said. "But if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will.

"I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy."

Since Obama took office in 2009, both critics and supporters of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency questioned how he would approach climate change, and more specifically, the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.

At the end of his first year, EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson ruled that greenhouse gases endangered public health and welfare, a decision made possible by Massachusetts v. EPA. The 2007 landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling determined that greenhouses gases were air pollutants under the Clean Air Act and authorized the EPA to decide if they threatened the American people.

The Obama administration, in the wake of the endangerment finding, tackled what was considered one of the largest offenders - motor vehicles. In July 2011, the EPA and the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed standards that would increase fuel economy to the equivalent of 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light-duty trucks by 2025. Those standards were finalized in August.

David Doniger, policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate and Clean Air Program, calls the fuel efficiency standards a major achievement for the president.

"These standards for cars will get progressively stronger," he said. "By 2025, cars will emit half the greenhouse gases, half the CO2 for carbon pollution and get double the mileage they got, say, in 2011, before that program started. This is a huge benefit for reducing the impact of vehicles on the climate."

However, critics like Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, suggest the automotive industry will have trouble meeting the standards. Manufacturers may need to raise their vehicle prices, but narrow the selection they offer to buyers.

"I think there will be a terrible consumer backlash," Ebell said. "And it won't just be American car companies. All car companies will be in deep, deep trouble if they try to meet the 54.5."

The EPA announced after the endangerment finding that it would also address greenhouse gas pollution from fossil fuel-fired power plants. In March, the agency proposed new source performance standards that would limit carbon pollution from new power plants. They should be finalized in March or April.

While EPA supporters and critics debated potential benefits and costs of these standards, the Obama administration can expect an even greater showdown after the agency proposes new source performance standards for existing power plants.

Doniger views existing power plants as the primary contributor to climate change. He points to new EPA data that confirms power plants are the No. 1 source of carbon pollution, releasing more than 2.2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2011.

"You can regulate new cars and count on turnover of the fleet as new cars replace old cars over a 15-year period," he said. "But with power plants, it doesn't work that way. Old power plants get rebuilt and can last for 60 years or more. So, if you're going to curb CO2 emissions from the power plant fleet, you need to do more than set a standard for new power plants."

Doniger argues the EPA can efficiently and affordably curb carbon pollution from existing power plants. In a National Resources Defense Council report, he outlines how the agency can achieve public health and climate protection benefits worth up to $60 billion in 2020, at a cost of $4 billion.

KC Golden, policy director of Climate Solutions, a Northwest-based clean energy economy nonprofit organization, agrees that the EPA will help cut costs once it finalizes new standards and achieves a cleaner, more affordable energy supply.

"We're paying for coal-fired energy in our utility bill, but we're also paying for eroding shorelines, the drought-stricken farm belt, and on and on," he said. "Right now, prices aren't telling the truth about coal-fired power because they don't include these devastating costs of climate change."

Ebell and other critics remain unconvinced and push back on the potential price of new EPA standards. He suggests the economy, and in particular consumers, will suffer if the power industry closes coal-fired power plants that still have 10 to 30 years left in them.

"[Utilities] made these very large investments, and now they're going to have to lose those investments and build new power plants," Ebell said. "The economic consequences of that will be home consumers with much higher electric the end of the day, they're always the ones who pay for things."

Several elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., strongly oppose the new EPA standards. After Obama's State of the Union address, Capito again shared her "disappointment and frustration at the president's misguided economic and energy agendas."

"President Obama has attacked West Virginia resources from Day One, and it is clear that his extreme energy agenda will only pick up steam in his second term," she said in a statement. "He said it himself, if Congress doesn't act on climate legislation - he will. He expressly said he would pick winners and losers in the energy economy, and we all know coal will be in the losing column."

Capito said EPA standards not only contributed to 2,000 layoffs in Appalachia, but also led to 1,200 lost mining jobs in West Virginia in the final quarter of 2012.

More Stories