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EPA Releases Proposed Rule for Existing Power Plants

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this week announced a proposed rule to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing fossil fuel–fired power plants 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. This first-of-its-kind proposal uses an infrequently exercised provision of the Clean Air Act to set state-specific reduction targets for carbon dioxide and to allow states to devise individual or joint plans to meet those targets. The EPA expects to finalize the rule by next June.

“Climate change, fueled by carbon pollution, supercharges risks to our health, our economy, and our way of life,” said EPA administrator Gina McCarthy. “EPA is delivering on a vital piece of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan by proposing a Clean Power Plan that will cut harmful carbon pollution from our largest source—power plants. 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.”

An analysis by our Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions researchers highlights key details of the 600-plus-page rule, which assigns each state interim and final emissions goals. These goals are based, in part, on the efficiency of each state’s fossil fleet in 2012. They also reflect estimates of the emissions-reduction potential of efficiency upgrades to coal plants and increased use of renewable energy, demand-side energy efficiency, and existing natural gas capacity.

The rule provides states considerable flexibility to decide how to meet their interim and final emissions reduction goals. States may consider methods such as expanding renewable energy generation, creating energy efficiency programs and working with other states on the creation of regional plans. Once the EPA’s proposed rule is finalized, states will be given one to three years to finalize their state plans.

The rule sparked predictable political commentary. Republican leadership pilloried the rule, the President’s allies expressed gratitude for his leadership, and political pundits mused over the rule’s impact on the midterm elections. A Washington Post-ABC News post–rule-announcement poll found a large majority of Americans—70 percent—support regulating carbon from power plants. Americans in coal states were supportive of limiting greenhouse gas emissions regardless of whether their state was forced to make bigger adjustments than other states. And at least one set of political commenters—former Sen. Joseph Lieberman and I—point out that, if executed effectively, the rule could begin the nation’s path back to more comprehensive climate change policy.

China Taking Action as Well?

The proposed rule appeared to spur another of the world’s largest emitters—China—to consider capping its carbon dioxide emissions, starting with its next five-year plan in 2016. The suggestion, offered by He Jiankun, chairman of China’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change at a Beijing conference, was reported in several media outlets but was not an official pronouncement of the government.

“What I said today was my personal view,” said Jiankun. “The opinions expressed at the workshop were only meant for academic studies. What I said does not represent the Chinese government or any organization.”

Still, some saw the statement—by a senior advisor—as a promising development ahead of international climate negotiations that began Wednesday in Bonn, Germany. “As with many things in China, these officials don’t speak unless there’s some emerging consensus in the government that this is a position that they’re trending toward,” said Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the environmental group at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I think it’s a very positive sign that this kind of debate has taken hold.”

Not all commenters were sanguine about the EPA rule. According to a German study released this week, even with the 30 percent emissions cut outlined in the EPA’s proposed rule, climate pledges the United States set at United Nations climate talks may not be met. The study found the EPA rule would reduce 2030 U.S. national emissions only about 10 percent below 2005 levels. In 2010, the United States promised to reduce greenhouse gases 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

“While the proposal is welcome, it is insufficient to meet the U.S.’s pledges of 17 percent reduction of all greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and is inconsistent with its long-term target of 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050,” said Niklas Hoehne of Ecofys, a German group that helped analyze the plan’s impact. “The plan implies an economy-wide decarbonisation rate of about 0.9 percent per annum, significantly lower than the 1.4 percent per annum achieved in the last decade. This is not as fast as required for a 2 C decarbonisation pathway.”

New Imports for Solar

The United States has set new import tariffs on some solar panels from China, saying some manufacturers had unfairly benefitted from subsidies. The still-preliminary Commerce Department ruling was prompted by a petition of charges filed by a group led by SolarWorld in 2011. The petition claims some Chinese companies avoided tariffs by shipping solar cell parts to locations like Taiwan—flooding the U.S. market with cheap products.

Duties imposed in the preliminary decision could range from 18.5 to 35.21 percent.

“The import duties, which are in line with our expectations, will wipe out the price competitiveness of Chinese products in the U.S. market,” said Zhou Ziguang, an analyst at the Chinese investment bank Ping An Securities in Beijing.

For U.S. companies, the news was mixed—some could see great benefits; others, very little.

“SunPower will be the primary beneficiary of the decision, given its presence in the U.S. distributed generation market where most Chinese companies supply product,” according to Morgan Stanley. “Although First Solar theoretically benefits, we believe that the impact will be small given limited presence of Chinese companies in the U.S. utility scale market.”

Rhone Resch, chief executive of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said “These damaging tariffs will increase costs for U.S. solar consumers and, in turn, slow the adoption of solar.”

Last year the European Union overcame a similar trade dispute with Beijing when the trade partners agreed to set a minimum price for solar panels from China.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.