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Everything you need to know about the EPA’s proposed rule on coal plants

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EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said during a news conference on Monday that "the high costs of climate inaction" are affecting American children and families today and it is important to limit carbon pollution. She proposed new regulations for a "clean power plant." (The Associated Press)

The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday proposed a rule designed to cut carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal plants by as much as 30 percent by 2030. compared with 2005 levels. The regulation has prompted heavy lobbying from industry and environmental groups, and the ensuing battle promises to become, as the Natural Resources Defense Council Climate Director Peter Altman put it, “the Super Bowl of climate politics.”

Why is the EPA regulating greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants?

Under President George W. Bush, the agency argued that Congress never intended to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, so it lacked authority to do so. In 2007, the Supreme Court disagreed, ruling in

Massachusetts v. EPA that the law was “unambiguous” and that emissions came under its broad definition of “air pollutant.” It ordered the agency to determine whether greenhouse-gas emissions endanger public health or the environment. The EPA issued an “endangerment finding” in December 2009 that laid the groundwork for the power-plant rule it proposed Monday.

Why target existing power plants?

Existing power plants are the largest source of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions. accounting for 38 percent. (The transportation sector comes in second, at 32 percent.) Much of this pollution stems from aging, coal-fired power plants.

Regulating power plant carbon emissions

The EPA says the average age of the nation’s coal fleet

is 42 years, meaning that most of them aren’t nearly as efficient as new coal plants, although many have been updated. Some were built when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, said Exelon chief executive Christopher Crane.

Of the 983 coal-fired units operating as of December at 523 plants, 63 percent are at least 40 years old, said John Coequyt of the Sierra Club.

The regulations also could ­affect natural-gas-fired power plants, which emit about half as much greenhouse gas as coal plants. The EPA said that natural-gas-fired combined cycle plants in the United States are 14 years old on average.

How will the regulations be implemented?

After the EPA finalizes its proposal in mid-2015, it will give states a year to design their implementation plans. It will let states meet emission targets for power plants in several ways, including through plant upgrades, switching from coal to natural gas, or by improving energy efficiency or promoting renewable energy “outside the fence,” meaning outside the plant site. That approach will give states greater flexibility in designing plans to meet the EPA’s targets.

Many industry groups are insisting that the EPA must limit itself to much more modest efficiency gains that could be made in the plants. The Oklahoma attorney general has vowed to file suit against the EPA’s regulations.

If a state does not come up with an effective implementation plan, the EPA can impose a federal plan.

Climate gauges

Temperatures at sea, on land and on ice all point to a warming trend over the past century, according to several indicators in the government's National Climate Assessment.


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