January 22

A new report on climate policy, spearheaded by former Colorado governor Bill Ritter, confirms what we’ve been saying here for months: President Obama can take strong action on climate without needing Congress to do anything. That’s good news, because many Republicans don’t believe in climate change, and with them in control of the House, no climate bill is going to happen.

More important, little-noticed news from around the nation suggest that this agenda is not just in the planning stage moving forward, with a spate of mandated closings of the oldest and filthiest coal-fired power plants. That’s better news!

Here’s the Ritter report:

Ritter met with the administration last week to discuss the 207-page report, which includes roughly 200 recommendations on how Obama can utilize his executive authority to push clean energy standards…After getting nothing back from Congress, [former climate czar Heather] Zichal said, “we started to focus on what we can do legally” under the president’s existing powers. The five key areas that the report focuses on are energy productivity, financing renewable energy, responsible natural gas production, developing alternative fuels and vehicles, and helping electric and gas utilities to adapt. 

But here’s the real meat. Previous EPA rules on coal-fired power plants, the primary villain when it comes to climate change, mainly consolidated existing gains against plants which had closed due to being outcompeted by natural gas. But in the past few months, EPA action under its pollution regulation authority has led to the closing of several additional facilities.

Naturally, they’re starting with the lowest-hanging fruit: old, inefficient, and dirty plants. In October, it was the Brayton Point Power Station, which will close in 2017 partly because of “the cost of meeting stricter environmental rules” (though it could be reversed). In November, it was the Carbon Power Plant in Utah: “it would be too expensive to retrofit the aging plant to meet new federal standards on mercury emissions,” and eight plants in the TVA system. In December, it was the older generators at the Four Corners Power Plant in New Mexico: “part of a $182 million plan for Arizona Public Service Co. to meet environmental regulations.” Overall, this map from Governing gives you a sense of the scale.

The thing to remember is that the EPA hasn’t even released its carbon pollution standards for existing power plants yet. (Almost certainly no coal plant in the nation could meet any reasonably aggressive standard.) But we see here how poisonous coal burning is — any halfway rigorous assessment of the tradeoffs finds huge benefits for closing coal plants, especially old ones (it turns out mercury is bad for you!), so the administration has many tools at its disposal to take on this problem.

So we’re back in the same old place: it’s up to the initiative of the president, his appointees, and the EPA. But for the first time, I think we can be a little bit optimistic.