The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obama’s climate plan could cut power-plant emissions 26 percent. Or just 1 percent.

As part of its big push to address climate change, the Obama administration is crafting rules to cut carbon-dioxide emissions from the nation's power plants. One big unknown, however, is how much these regulations will actually do. A lot? A little?

No one really knows for sure until the rules come out. But there seem to be a couple different schools of thought among observers. Let's lay them out:

1) The EPA rules will hardly do anything — a 5 percent cut in power-plant emissions at most. Earlier this month, Brian H. Potts, a lawyer at Foley & Lardner, wrote that the new regulations were "unlikely to cause any significant retirements of existing coal-fired power plants... and at best, will lead to no more than about a five percent reduction in power plant emissions once fully implemented around 2020."

How does he figure? The thing to note, Potts argues, is that under the Clean Air Act, the upcoming rules for power plants can't be any stricter than the carbon-dioxide limits that the Environmental Protection Agency has already imposed on individual coal-fired plants.

Back in 2011, for example, the EPA required a new 600-megawatt coal plant in Rogers City, Mich., to adopt certain efficient technologies that eventually led to a 4.7 percent reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions. "Obama’s planned uniform regulations will need to be even more benign, or EPA risks violating the Act," Potts writes.

On this view, the EPA's carbon rules are going to be very modest — at most, they might require the nation's coal plants to become a bit more efficient. If true, that means it's unlikely that the United States will be able to achieve its promise of cutting emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. (On the flip side, it also means that the rules won't be all that costly.)

2) The EPA rules will be moderately effective, cutting power-plant emissions as much as 14 percent — and help the U.S. meet its near-term climate goals. Over at Resources for the Future, Nathan Richardson disagrees with Potts's reading of the Clean Air Act and says the EPA can actually go further.

For starters, Richardson argues, there's nothing preventing the EPA from crafting rules for power plants that are more stringent than what the agency has already imposed on coal plants in the past. But Richardson also notes that the EPA has a couple of different options for curbing emissions.

The EPA could act cautiously and simply require that coal- and gas-fired power plants adopt slightly more efficient technology, in which case a 1 percent to 5 percent cut is realistic. Or the EPA could get slightly more creative and regulate coal- and gas-fired power plants together, which would encourage utilities to switch from dirtier coal to (somewhat) cleaner gas. In that case, a 14 percent cut is possible. The latter approach has a greater chance of getting struck down by courts, though.

If the EPA takes the safer route, Richardson says, "That doesn’t get you close to the President’s target of 17% economy-wide emissions reductions by 2020. It’s not worthless either, though. Even [modest EPA rules are] an important part of a package of policies that, combined with market trends, could get the country to that goal."

3) The EPA could be very ambitious and cut power-plant emissions 26 percent by 2020 — if it's willing to take the legal risk. There's a third possibility here, and it's one that has lots of environmentalists optimistic about Obama's climate plan.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has outlined a proposal that would give states a lot of flexibility in cutting carbon dioxide. The EPA would set different overall emissions goals for each state, and electric utilities could meet them through a mix of efficiency, reduced coal use or more renewable power. NRDC estimates that the U.S. power sector could cut its emissions 26 percent by 2020  this way — and put the United States well on pace for its climate goals.

The catch? It’s far from clear that the agency will actually take this route. Many utilities are likely to oppose an especially aggressive proposal, which NRDC expects would cost them about $4 billion per year. And plenty of coal-state governors have opposed stringent rules, worrying that they could hike electric bills for consumers. What’s more, an ambitious approach like this could prove legally dicey. If the EPA's rules are struck down in court, the agency has to start over — and Obama doesn't have that many years left in office.

So that's the lay of the land. Outside observers basically think that the EPA's new rules could cut power-plant emissions anywhere from 1 percent to 26 percent. It all depends on how the administration juggles environmental considerations with concerns about legality and cost.


--A more complete breakdown of Obama's climate plan.

--If you really want to get deep in the weed, Brian Potts responds to Richardon's criticisms here.