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Sustainable Energy

Obama Orders EPA to Regulate Power Plants in Wide-Ranging Climate Plan

The president presents a plan to use the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

Utilities and innovators have lacked a clear signal from the government on climate change.

On a hot day in Washington, DC, President Obama rolled up his sleeves and dabbed his forehead while describing the dangers of climate change and laying out a plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, in large part by regulating carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. The plan also includes actions to help communities prepare for the effects of climate change, as well as measures to promote coöperation with other countries on reducing emissions around the world.

POTUS wiping brow with handkerchief
Climate chief: Obama tells students at Georgetown about a new plan for countering climate change.
smokestacks active at night
Regulatory target: Coal power plants like this one in Texas will be subject to limits on carbon dioxide emissions as part of the Obama administration’s new climate plan.

“It’s a historic plan,” Gene Karpinski, the president of the League of Conservation Voters, told reporters after the speech. He said it “goes far beyond what was ever seen” from any other president.

“This announcement is a watershed in the long effort to get the U.S. government to focus on grappling with the climate change problem,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences at Princeton University.

For Obama, who has been criticized for not acting decisively on climate change (see “Obama Still Needs to Make the Case for Dealing with Climate Change” and “Dear Mr. President: Time to Deal with Climate Change”), today’s speech was his clearest statement yet on the reasons scientists view global warming as a problem. “Science accumulated and reviewed over decades tells us that our planet is changing in ways that will have profound impacts on all of humankind,” he said. Though he acknowledged that no weather event is caused by climate change alone, he said, “We know that in a world that’s warmer than it used to be, all weather events are affected.”

In a memo released shortly after the speech, Obama called on the EPA to issue proposed regulations for new power plants by September 20 and for existing power plants by June 1, 2014. He specifically called for the EPA to “develop approaches that allow the use of market-based instruments, performance standards, and other regulatory flexibilities.” Market-based approaches generally allow trading of credits; for example, a utility might be able to keep a coal plant open while getting credit for reducing emissions with a solar power plant. Economists say this flexibility could keep down the cost of complying with new environmental regulations, but it’s not clear how much authority the EPA has to establish such a system.

Reaction to Obama’s address has been mixed. Some business groups cautioned that the president’s plan could raise energy prices, while environmental groups praised it as providing a clear signal that could encourage the innovation needed to meet long-term goals for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions (see “What to Look for in the President’s Climate Address”).

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