President Obama Can Dramatically and Cost-Effectively Cut Carbon Pollution from Power Plants Using the Clean Air Act

Posted on June 7, 2013 by Peter Lehner

On the night of his re-election, President Obama told the nation that he wanted “our children to live in an America…that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

In the past year, we’ve seen extreme weather, fueled by carbon pollution, cost hundreds of American lives and nearly $100 billion in damage across the country. Yet right now we have no national standards to control carbon pollution from the biggest emitters—the 1500 existing power plants which are responsible for 40 percent of U.S. carbon pollution. NRDC has developed a plan for how the President could use his existing authority under the Clean Air Act to cut this climate-changing pollution from power plants, quickly and cost-effectively.

In a 2011 Supreme Court decision, American Electric Power v. Connecticut, the court ruled that it is the EPA’s responsibility to curb carbon pollution from power plants, new and existing. Carbon pollution limits for new power plants have been proposed and the EPA needs to make them final.  But the step that will make the biggest difference is cutting pollution from existing power plants. Under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, the EPA could set state-specific standards for average emissions from existing power plants based on each state’s current energy mix. Then states and power plant owners would have broad flexibility in deciding how to meet those standards, using a range of cost-effective measures and technologies.

Not all states line up at the same starting point when it comes to carbon emissions—some are heavily coal dependent, while others rely more on lower-carbon fuels and clean, renewable energy. Developing state-specific standards will give heavily coal-reliant states more realistic targets, while still moving them toward a cleaner energy supply. In addition, states and power plant owners can keep costs down by using a variety of measures to achieve compliance, whether it’s installing a new boiler in an old coal-fired plant, or investing in a home-weatherization program to reduce energy demand. These efficiency measures will help keep energy bills low and also create thousands of jobs that can’t be outsourced.

All in all, NRDC’s flexible, cost-effective proposal can achieve a 26 percent reduction (from 2005 levels) in carbon pollution from power plants by 2020, according to modeling done by the same firm the EPA uses for much of its air pollution modeling. The cost of compliance, about $4 billion, is comparatively low, and is vastly outweighed by the benefits--$25 to $60 billion in savings. These benefits come in the form of 3,600 lives saved, and thousands of asthma attacks and other illness prevented each year due to less air pollution, as well as the value of reducing carbon pollution by 560 million tons. This is twice the reduction that will be achieved by clean car standards.

The President has been very clear about the need to do something to curb global warming. This cost-effective proposal could be his biggest opportunity to take decisive action. He can dramatically reduce carbon pollution from power plants--while creating major health benefits and jobs--using his existing authority under the Clean Air Act.