The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plant rules were unveiled to a mixture of condemnation and applause.

The proposed rules, which were released on Monday, are intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030. While the aim of the plan is to reduce pollution and promote renewable energy, feelings towards the proposal widely range, reports environmental blogger Todd Bates for the Asbury Park Press.

“This historic proposal is what we’ve been waiting for,” Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, said in a statement. “This is America’s chance to lead and finally act to crack down on global warming pollution from power plants.”

But Thomas Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research in Washington, said in a statement that “President Obama is delivering on his promise to send electricity prices skyrocketing. With this new rule, Americans can expect to pay $200 more each year for their electricity.”

So who’s right?

The rules are only a proposal. While the EPA is taking public comments, the rules do fall in line with the EPA’s strengthened authority under the Obama Administration and the Supreme Court ruling affirming the Clean Air

Photo Credit: Les Haines
Photo Credit: Les Haines

Act. One question that has arisen from the EPA’s announcement is whether or not they have the authority to issues this type of rule, writes energy attorney Jacob Hollinger for Energy Business Law.

This question turns on the language of Clean Air Act (CAA) Section 111(d).  Some lawyers contend that rather than authorizing EPA to regulate power plant greenhouse gas emissions, Section 111(d) actually prohibits such regulations.  But EPA’s response is a strong one:  Section 111(d) is subject to more than one possible interpretation and it is not unreasonable (for a variety of reasons) to read the provision as allowing EPA’s rule.  And that is the analysis that courts will conduct:  Does the statute unambiguously preclude EPA from issuing the rule?  If courts agree with EPA that the answer is “no,” they will almost certainly agree that the statute permits EPA to issue the rule.

The EPA’s proposal only affects states and not power plants or other energy production companies directly. The rules define “building blocks” for states to identify their carbon reduction targets, explains Hollinger.

[T]he rule has two parts: the “target rate,” and the requirement that each state submit a plan for reaching the target rate.  The target rate is going to be the most controversial aspect of the rule.  EPA set a different target rate for each state, and the manner in which it did so is what the fight is going to be about.  As for how to achieve the target rate, that is a bit less controversial because EPA has given the states a lot of flexibility.  In essence, the states can get to their targets however they want – by mandating heat rate improvements, by implementing a cap-and-trade system, by reducing demand for electricity – as long as they demonstrate that their plan will in fact get them there.

The state-by-state targets have made for great headlines because while Vermont and Washington D.C. do not have to create their own plans, Washington state has to find a way to reduce their carbon emissions by a whopping 72 percent. Since Washington is already planning to close a coal power plant (TransAlta in Centralia), environmental attorney Doug Steding did a little digging into how the Associated Press came up with and reported that number.

[W]hat the AP article misses (but others have picked up on, with Craig Welch’s coverage in the Seattle Times being the best example) is that the vast majority of carbon emissions in Washington associated with energy production come from Centralia. The numbers EPA used on this point are available in the spreadsheets here, and TransAlta’s emissions account for approximately 80% of the total fossil fuel emissions of carbon dioxide in Washington. So, the phase-out of TransAlta’s facility alone (which would count under EPA’s proposed rule) will indeed mean that the goal set by EPA will be easy for Washington to meet.

While it’ll be up to the states on how they’ll reach their carbon goals, the EPA is very optimistic that the plan will do more than just promote clean air initiatives, according to energy lawyer Jason Perdion in Environmental Law Strategy.

The EPA expects electricity bills to be about 8 percent lower as states, cities, businesses, and homeowners work to increase energy efficiency.  The EPA also claims that the Plan will create jobs for Americans in the power sector and ensure that the United States remains a leader in the global movement towards sustainable energy.

Coal dependent states are more likely to have a difficult time complying with this proposal if it is ultimately approved, but it’s unlikely that the EPA and the federal government will back off its stance against greenhouse gases anytime soon.