WASHINGTON — While details of the plan remain murky, the Obama administration says its carbon-limits plan will play a major role in achieving the pledge President Obama made during his first year in office to cut America’s carbon emissions by about 17 percent by 2020. Some questions and answers about the proposal:
Q: How does the government plan to limit emissions?
A: Obama is turning to the Clean Air Act. The 1970s-era law has long been used to regulate pollutants such as soot, mercury and lead but has only recently been applied to greenhouse gases. Unlike with new power plants, the government can’t regulate existing plant emissions directly. Instead, the government will issue guidelines for cutting emissions and then each state will develop its own plan to meet those guidelines. If a state refuses, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can create its own plan.
Q: Why is the rule necessary?
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A: Power plants are the single largest source of greenhouse-gas emissions in the U.S. Environmentalists and the administration say that without bold action, climate change will intensify and endanger the public’s well-being around the world.These rules won’t touch carbon emissions in other nations whose coal plants are even dirtier. But the administration says that leading by example gives the U.S. more leverage to pressure other countries to reduce their own emissions.
Q: How steep will the reductions be?
A: We don’t know. The administration hasn’t said whether it will set one universal standard or apply different standards in each state. But Obama’s senior counselor, John Podesta, said the reductions will be made “in the most cost-effective and most efficient way possible,” by giving flexibility to the states. That could include offsetting emissions by increasing the use of solar and nuclear power, switching to cleaner-burning fuels such as natural gas or creating efficiency programs that reduce energy demand. States might also pursue an emissions-trading plan — also known as cap-and-trade — as several states have done.
Q: How will the plan affect my power bill? What about the economy?
A: It depends where you live. Different states have different mixes of coal versus gas and other fuels, so the rules will affect some states more than others. Dozens of coal-burning plants have already announced they plan to close. Still, it’s a good bet the rules will drive up electricity prices. The U.S. relies on coal for 40 percent of its electricity, and the Energy Department predicts retail power prices will rise this year because of environmental regulations, economic forces and other factors.
Environmentalists argue that some of those costs are offset by decreased health-care costs and other indirect benefits. They also say the transition toward greener fuels could create jobs.
Q: Doesn’t Obama need approval from Congress?
A: Not for this. A 2007 Supreme Court ruling gave the EPA the green light to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be fierce opposition and drawn-out litigation. The government is expecting legal challenges and is preparing to defend the rules in court if necessary.