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Obama promotes EPA’s upcoming power plant rule

Speaking in his weekly radio address Saturday, President Obama argued that an upcoming rule to curb carbon emissions from existing power plants will improve public health and protect the planet for future generations.

Obama did not divulge the details of the proposed regulation, which the Environmental Protection Agency will release Monday. But he touted one specific benefit, saying, “in just the first year that these standards go into effect, up to 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks will be avoided — and those numbers will go up from there.”

The proposal is still being finalized, but several individuals familiar with the rule said it will cut carbon emissions from the electricity sector over the next two decades while giving state regulators and utility companies the flexibility to meet federal targets through measures including greater energy efficiency and investments in solar and wind power.

Many of the public-health benefits associated with the regulation stem from the fact that the phasing out of older coal-fired plants will cut soot, or fine particulate matter, which is linked to both heart and lung disease.

The address, which the president recorded Friday at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, is the first phase in a multi-step rollout aimed at marshaling public support for the climate proposal. After EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy announces it Monday, the president will participate in a call with advocacy groups organized by the American Lung Association.

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)

“Today, about 40 percent of America’s carbon pollution comes from power plants. But right now, there are no national limits to the amount of carbon pollution that existing plants can pump into the air we breathe. None,” Obama said. “We limit the amount of toxic chemicals like mercury, sulfur, and arsenic that power plants put in our air and water. But they can dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air. It’s not smart, it’s not safe and it doesn’t make sense.”

Environmentalists and renewable energy firms are eagerly anticipating the initiative, which represents the most ambitious measure the president will have undertaken as part of his ongoing effort to address global warming. The administration has already imposed stricter carbon limits on cars and trucks and proposed curbing greenhouse gas emissions from all new power plants.

“Without a doubt, it is historic that we’re having carbon pollution being regulated in a way that will accelerate a transition from coal to cleaner energy sources over time,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in an interview Friday. “That is profound.”

The proposal has already drawn criticism from Republicans, the coal industry and some business groups on the grounds that it will shutter coal-fired power plants that provide cheap electricity.

Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) said in the Republican weekly radio address that the EPA’s approach would exact too high an economic toll. “We all want clean air and clean water,” he said. “We don’t want costly regulations that make little or no difference, that are making things less affordable. Republicans want electricity and gas when you need it, at a price you can afford.”

Laura Sheehan, a spokeswoman for the industry group American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said in a statement that the president shouldn’t frame his climate action plan as an effort to address heart and lung ailments.

“The White House is distorting the truth by using public health as a distraction from the real motivation for its politically driven climate agenda; especially offensive considering that hospitals and other public services could face blackouts, while families will struggle to put food on their tables, under President Obama’s climate regulations,” she added.

In the address, the president said the EPA had crafted the rules with input from the business community as well as local governments.

“In fact, nearly a dozen states are already implementing their own market-based programs to reduce carbon pollution. And over 1,000 mayors have signed agreements to cut their cities’ carbon pollution,” he said. “So the idea of setting higher standards to cut pollution at our power plants is not new. It’s just time for Washington to catch up with the rest of the country.”

Obama made a moral pitch to the public as well, suggesting Americans had both the ingenuity and the obligation to future generations to meet the challenge climate change poses.

“As president, and as a parent, I refuse to condemn our children to a planet that’s beyond fixing,” he said. “The shift to a cleaner energy economy won’t happen overnight, and it will require tough choices along the way. But a low-carbon, clean-energy economy can be an engine of growth for decades to come. America will build that engine.”

Jeffrey R. Holmstead, a partner at the Bracewell & Giuliani law firm, which represents several utilities that operate coal-fired plants, wrote in an e-mail that the president shouldn’t gloss over this policy’s impact.

“If we want to reduce carbon emissions, the cost of energy will increase and there will be adverse economic consequences. This is simply no way around this fact,” Holmstead wrote. “That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t reduce carbon emissions, but we should be honest about what this effort will mean for families and businesses.”

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.

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