Five Myths About New U.S. Climate Plan: What You May Not Know

The U.S. unveils the final version of its controversial Clean Power Plan, which calls for sweeping cuts in carbon emissions from power plants.

Updated at 2:44, August 3

Talk about complexity. The key plank of President Obama’s climate plan is hardly one-size-fits-all. Its targets vary by state, and its details can be confusing, so here’s a myth-busting guide.

On Monday, the U.S. government released the 1,560-page final rule of its so-called Clean Power Plan, which aims to tackle climate change by reducing heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Senior administration officials gave a preview Sunday.

Nationwide, the plan aims to cut these emissions 32 percent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. It sets a slightly higher target than the 30 percent proposed last year but it gives states two extra years—until 2022—to begin making cuts. It gives them individual targets that they can meet in multiple ways such as switching from coal to natural gas, boosting energy efficiency or using more renewable energy.

The controversial plan, sure to be challenged in court and on Capitol Hill, comes ahead of historic UN-led climate talks this December in Paris. Countries are pledging to cut their emissions, and Obama has committed to a 26 percent to 28 percent cut, below 2005 levels, by 2025.

This plan is his cornerstone. He calls it the “the biggest, most important step we’ve ever taken to combat climate change." At the White House Monday, he said power plants, though the single largest U.S. source of carbon pollution, have yet to face limits on how much carbon they can “dump into the air. Think about that."

Since proposed in June 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan has ignited endless debate—backers say it’s an essential weapon against global warming, but critics say it’s a costly “war on coal”—and prompted common misperceptions:

Myth #1: It limits emissions from individual power plants.

Not directly. The plan does not set limits for each existing plant but rather lets states decide how best to meet their overall target.

Opponents say the EPA is evading accountability. Nicolas Loris of the conservative Heritage Foundation says it “leaves state officials to take the political heat for executing power plant regulations that are all economic pain and no environmental gain.”

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told reporters that the plan enables states to make cost-effective changes. “It’s flexible, customizable. and it puts states in the driver’s seat,” she said in a press conference. “They can cut carbon pollution in whatever way makes the most sense to them.”

The plan give states credits for acting quickly to invest in renewable power sources such as solar and wind that emit zero carbon. Advocates for these alternatives see growth opportunities.

“Solar energy is the most sensible compliance option for states under the Clean Power Plan,” says Rhone Resch, CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, an industry group, noting it works in all 50 states and can be deployed quickly.

Wind power capacity will more than triple by 2040, and solar generation will nearly double as a result of the proposed plan, according to a May forecast by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Myth #2: It sets higher targets for coal states and will hike power prices.

Not necessarily. The EPA bases its targets on a complex formula that consider each state’s electricity mix. Some states such as Montana, which has the highest rate of emissions per megawatt-hour of power nationwide, will have higher targets than any of the seven that rely most on coal. (Read about the seven states that get 70-plus percent of their electricity from coal.)

Still, coal will be hit hard. Once the dominant source of U.S. electricity, it’s been on the wane in recent years as it’s struggled to comply with federal limits on mercury emissions and lower natural gas prices. Coal, which generated 34 percent of U.S. power in the first five months of this year—down from 49 percent in 2007, emits about twice as much carbon as natural gas when burned.

The rule will shutter more coal-fired power plants. It’s likely to more than double the number of closures by 2040, the EIA recently forecast. Most shutdowns will occur by 2020, cutting coal power generation by one-fifth.

What will this do to electricity prices? Forecasts based on earlier versions of the plan vary widely. Last year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for the 21st Century Energy said it could hike power rates, cost jobs and slow U.S. economic growth.

The EIA said last year’s version would cause rates to rise 3 percent to 7 percent during 2020-2025, citing the shift toward more renewables and natural gas. Even so, it said consumers and businesses would pay “slightly” lower utility bills in 2040 partly because of efficiency gains.

The White House predicts U.S. consumers will pay an annual average of $85 less on their electric bills by 2030. It also says, by reducing air pollution, it will avoid up to 3,600 premature deaths and lead to 90,000 fewer asthma attacks in children.

Myth #3: It faces an insurmountable legal challenge.

Perhaps not. Opponents have repeatedly sued the EPA, saying it lacks the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. In most cases, the critics lost.

“The legal attack is likely to fail,” says David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that supports the Clean Power Plan. He says the U.S. Supreme Court has found three times in the last eight years that the EPA has a responsibility under the Clean Air Act to curb emissions.

“There’s a high bar to get a stay” or court-ordered delay, he says, noting challengers will need to prove they’ll eventually win on the merits of the case and that they’ll suffer “irreparable harm” in the interim. He says such requests are usually denied.

Besides, the White House has promised to veto any legislative attempts to thwart the plan, and Congress does not appear to have the votes to override it.

Yet the Clean Power Plan takes a fairly new approach to regulating emissions by including solutions such as cap-and-trade programs that go far beyond power plants—the target of the rule.

Opponents promise a fight. Doniger expects the volume of litigation will morph from a “torrent to a tsunami.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from coal-reliant Kentucky, has urged governors not to comply.

“Rest assured we won’t stop fighting until this illegal and economically destructive rule is overturned by the courts," says Mike Duncan, president and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an industry group.

Myth #4: It’s not essential for meeting U.S. climate pledge.

Probably is. U.S. carbon emissions are on the rise again, after a multi-year decline. They fell for four of the five years between 2008 and 2012, dipping to 15 percent below 2005 levels. This drop resulted largely from the fracking boom that boosted a shift toward cleaner-burning natural gas and the Great Recession that depressed energy demand.

Since 2013, however, these emissions have increased and without the Clean Power Plan, they will continue to rise—about 2.7 percent from 2013 to 2040, according to the EIA.

The Obama administration has taken steps to cut carbon emissions from other sectors such as transportation. For example, it’s set stricter fuel efficiency standards for new cars and light trucks. Yet the plan will set the first national limits on carbon pollution from power plants, which account for 37 percent of total U.S. carbon emissions.

Myth #5: It won’t make any difference in climate change.

Not necessarily. It’s true, as critics note, that the sought-after U.S. cuts represent only a tiny fraction of global emissions. “In fact, the U.S. could cut its CO2 emissions 100 percent and it would not make a difference in global warming,” writes Heritage Foundation’s Nicolas Loris.

Still, supporters say Obama’s plan holds significant symbolic value. They say the United States, the world’s second largest carbon emitter, needs to show leadership in order to prompt similar reductions from China, the largest emitter, and other countries.

"If we don't do it, nobody will," Obama said Monday. "The only reason that China is now looking at getting serious about its emissions is because they saw that we were going to do it, too.  When the world faces its toughest challenges, America leads the way forward. That’s what this plan is about."

He and other supporters say it will also put the U.S. at the forefront of innovation in clean energy technology. Bob Perciasepe, president of the nonpartisan Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, says the plan will boost efforts by states and business to cut emissions: "Years from now, I’m sure we’ll see this as a pivotal moment accelerating the clean energy transition that is already underway."

The story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

On Twitter: Follow Wendy Koch and get more environment and energy coverage at NatGeoEnergy.

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