New EPA proposal puts this promise back in play
After failed attempts to push climate change legislation in his first term, President Barack Obama is going around Congress to move forward his climate change goals.
Obama is using executive authority to act on one of his 2012 campaign promises: set a standard for utility companies that would make 80 percent of America's electricity clean by 2035. This week, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed ambitious new rules that could reduce carbon emissions from power plants by 30 percent, compared to 2005 levels, by 2030.
Some are calling the Clean Power Plan proposal one of the most significant steps aimed at combating global warming to come out of the White House.
The electric power sector, primarily coal plants, accounts for about 40 percent of carbon emissions and about a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Coal plants are the largest producer of electricity in the United States – nearly 40 percent. A big change there could have a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions and the amount of electricity produced with clean technology.
But it is difficult to predict how much these changes – assuming the current proposal becomes the final rule – will chip away at that 80-percent-by-2035 goal. Regardless, this rule could reduce the amount of coal-produced energy and encourage utility companies to adopt clean technologies, said David Konisky, a public policy professor at Georgetown University.
"The new rule will represent an important step forward on reducing these emissions," Konisky said.
Under the EPA's proposed rule, coal-fired power plants across the country would have to adopt the new carbon emission limits, and each state would decide how to make it happen it from a list of options. The options include establishing or joining a regional or state-based cap-and-trade program, or plants could adopt clean energy technologies—such as solar or wind power.
The concept behind the new rules come from Obama's Climate Action Plan, which he announced a year ago.
"Right now, there are no federal limits to the amount of carbon pollution that those plants can pump into our air. None. Zero. That's not right, that's not safe, and it needs to stop," he said in a speech at Georgetown University in 2013. "So today, for the sake of our children, and the health and safety of all Americans, I'm directing the (EPA) to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants and complete new pollution standards for both new and existing power plants."
So how are Obama and the EPA able to put these regulations in place without Congress? Back in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA is required to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. On the same day he gave his Georgetown speech, Obama directed the EPA to act on this rule and come up with a proposal regarding the first-ever regulations on carbon emissions at new power plants by Sep. 20, 2013 (they did) and regulations for existing power plants by June 1, 2014 (the latest proposal).
The EPA will spend the next year collecting comments on the proposal, and Obama expects them to issue a final rule by June 1, 2015.
We expect the administration will encounter plenty of opposition before the EPA issues its final rule and begins to enforce the regulations. We'll be watching to see how events play out. For now, we move this promise from Stalled to In the Works.
Environmental Protection Agency, news release, June 2, 2014
Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Power Plan proposal, June 2, 2014
New York Times, "President Said to be Planning to Use Executive Authority on Carbon Rule," May 28, 2014
Environmental Protection Agency, "Clean Energy and You," accessed May 30, 2014
Email interview with Georgetown University public policy professor David Konisky, May 30, 2014
The White House Office of the Press Secretary, "Remarks by the President on Climate Change," June 25, 2013
The White House, "The President's Climate Action Plan," June 2013
U.S. State Department, letter from the Office of the Special Envoy for Climate Change, Jan 28, 2010
Resources for the Future, "Obama's Biggest Climate Move Wasn't in His Speech," June 26, 2013
Supreme Court of the United States, Syllabus: Massachusetts, et al vs EPA, et al, Decided April 2, 2007
Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Air Act section 111(d), accessed May 30, 2014
Environmental Protection Agency, 2013 Proposed Carbon Pollution Standard for New Power Plants, Sep. 20, 2013
New York Times, "Obama to Take Action to Slash Coal Pollution," June 2, 2014
The Hill, "Obama's new climate war opens today," June 2, 2014
Congressional inaction makes new standards unlikely
Obama set a high standard when said he would set standards requiring electric companies to obtain 80 percent of their energy for clean sources by 2035. Our first question: what did he mean by "clean energy”?
Obama's definition includes wind, solar, nuclear, natural gas and clean coal, which is a broad interpretation. The president's role here is to get a legislative standard that utility companies will follow.
Getting clean energy legislation passed is no easy task. Former Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M, proposed the Clean Energy Standard Act of 2012 in March of that year, but it never made it out of the Energy & Natural Resources Committee. That was the last new piece of legislation relevant to Obama's promise.
Right now, there's nothing new coming down the pipeline, either, said David Konisky, an environmental politics professor at Georgetown University. He said the chances of legislation moving in Congress are "obviously low given the energy policy preferences of Republicans in the House.”
Many states have individual renewable energy standards, but none as aggressive as 80 percent, Victor said. He added that these policies have nothing to do with Obama policy and long predate his terms.
On the national level, Obama's nomination of Ron Binz to chair the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission could be a step towards setting broader electricity requirements. In Colorado, Binz oversaw a shift to renewable energy.
But FERC alone could not implement a new standard, said David Victor, a University of California, San Diego political science professor and environmental policy expert. Also, Binz hasn't yet been confirmed and may face opposition.
Overall, there's nothing happening on the congressional front to create a clean energy standard for electricity. We'll keep our eye on this through the end of Obama's term, but since no legislation is moving, or even being introduced, for now we rate this promise Stalled.
Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency, "Summary Maps,” accessed August 2, 2013
Email interview with Georgetown University environmental politics David Konisky, July 31, 2013
Email interview with University of California, San Diego political science professor David Victor, August 1, 2013
Obama For America, "A Plan for Jobs and Middle-Class Security,” October 23, 2012
Politico, "Conservatives ID Next Confirmation Fight: FERC,” August 1, 2013
U.S. Energy Information Administration, "AEO2013 Early Release Overview,” December 5, 2012
White House, "FACT SHEET: The State of the Union: President Obama"s Plan to Win the Future,” January 25, 2011
White House, "President Obama Announces More Key Administration Posts,” June 27, 2013