Obama to push for changes on existing power plants

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WASHINGTON (CNN) — President Barack Obama will call for new standards on existing power plants in a speech Tuesday, according to senior administration officials.

The move will represent a major turning point in efforts to combat climate change and will likely please environmental activists who’ve been calling on the president to issue such regulations on coal plants, the largest source of carbon emissions in the United States.

“There’s no single step that can reverse the effects of climate change. But when it comes to the world we leave our children, we owe it to them to do what we can,” Obama said in a video released Saturday, announcing his upcoming speech.

While the Obama administration created regulations for newly built coal plants during his first term, he will use a presidential memorandum to direct the Environmental Protection Agency to establish carbon pollution standards for already active plants.

Senior administration officials did not outline the specifics of the new standards, saying instead the administration will start a “very aggressive” process in which they’ll work with states and stakeholders — labor leaders, nonprofit organizations, etc.

But don’t expect the regulations to take effect anytime soon. Obama will direct the EPA to come up with a detailed draft proposal by June 2014, and a finalized version one year later.

Cost vs. benefit?

Proposals, officials said, will be crafted through the executive branch and avoid the necessity of congressional approval, a step that could slow down the process due to the political debate surrounding climate change.

In his speech Tuesday at Georgetown University, Obama will argue that the benefits of reduced carbon emissions will far outweigh the costs of implementing new rules, officials said.

“We don’t have to choose between cutting carbon pollution to protect the health of our kids, and creating jobs,” one official said. “Americans know that we can do both.”

Critics, however, say the policy on existing plants, could be damaging for the still-sluggish economy. Construction of new coal plants has slowed down in part due to the EPA’s already-declared standards for newly-built plants.

“The impact could be economic havoc,” Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, which represents the coal industry, told CNNMoney earlier this year.

Coal is used to produce about 40% of the nation’s electricity. Popovich pointed to a labor union study saying 250,000 mining, railroad and utility jobs could be lost if there were large shutdowns of coal-fired power plants. He also said electric bills would rise for some customers.

Hal Quinn, president and CEO of the National Mining Association, told Congress last week that U.S. exports of coal are becoming an increasingly large share of the economy. Last year, he said, exports added $16.6 billion to the economy and supported 168,430 jobs.

“For every million tons of U.S. coal exported an estimated 1,320 total jobs are added to the U.S. economy,” he testified to the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power.

While the Obama administration did not give cost-benefit analysis of its new plan, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a large environmental action group, estimates it would cost $4 billion to comply with new regulations on coal power plants, but the economy would see anywhere from $25 to $60 billion in benefits.

A large chunk of the benefit side comes from reduced health care costs. Carbon pollution is known for contributing to higher rates of asthma, as well as other possible illnesses.

David Hawkins, director of climate programs at the NRDC, argued people generally underestimate the degree to which humans depend on “hospitable climate.”

“We are tinkering with a system that is literally our life support system,” he said Monday on a conference call with reporters.

With the cleaning up of coal power plants, experts say other harmful substances created by coal combustion, such as nitrogen dioxide and sulfur oxide, will also decline. The administration has already issued standards for dangerous pollutants like mercury that also come from coal, like mercury.

A long-awaited change

Many environmentalists will likely embrace the president’s proposals. Activists have expressed frustration with the administration in the past, saying Obama hasn’t worked with a strong sense of urgency on the issue since taking office.

“This is the change Americans have been waiting for on climate,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in anticipation of the president’s speech. “President Obama is finally putting action behind his words.”

While the idea of long-term climate change is a controversial notion politically, it’s accepted as fact by most researchers.

A March poll from Gallup indicated nearly half — 47% — of Americans think the U.S. government is doing too little to protect the environment, while 35% said the government was doing the right amount and 16% said it was doing too much.

The president offered renewed hope to the environmental community — but fears among the coal mining industry and concerns among climate change skeptics — in his inauguration speech and State of the Union address this year. He robustly signaled he would do more to combat climate change during his second term. And again last week, during a speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Obama urged countries to work together to fight the “global threat of our time.”

Obama on Tuesday will outline further provisions in his climate change plan, which officials say includes a goal to reduce carbon by at least 3 billion metric tons by 2030 for appliances and federal buildings.

His administration will also make available up to $8 billion in loan guarantees to spur energy-efficient projects and investments, and grant more permits for renewable projects on public lands.

In his second term, Obama and his administration will issue another major round of fuel economy standards for heavy-duty vehicles, as it did in 2011 for trucks and buses built between 2014 and 2018. The new round of standards, the official said, will apply to vehicles built after 2018.

Brace for impact

The president also will emphasize his intent to better prepare the country for the impact of climate change. Citing the more than $110 billion in costs from weather-related disasters last year, a senior administration official said the president will direct federal agencies to make sure new roads and buildings are constructed to withstand increased flood risks.

The administration will promote more resilient hospitals that can hold up through strong storms, and will help farmers better handle droughts and wildfires.

On a more global front, the president will call for negotiations for free trade for more environmental goods and services in sectors that cover clean-energy technologies, engineering, and consulting, a senior administration official said.

“For the sake of future generations, our generation must move toward a global compact to confront a changing climate before it is too late,” Obama said last week in Berlin. “That is our job. That is our task. We have to get to work.”

He’ll also call for the U.S . government to stop supporting the public financing of new coal plants overseas, unless countries use new technology that significantly reduces carbon emissions or unless there are no other feasible option for power in less-developed countries.

In 2009, Obama pledged that the United States would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 17% of 2005 levels by 2020.

Kevin Kennedy, director of the U.S. Climate Initiative at the World Resources Institute, said if the U.S. wants to meet that commitment, it has to start acting on some of the provisions in Obama’s new plan as soon as possible.

For new standards on existing power plants alone, Kennedy said, the country could start seeing carbon reductions by 2018 — but only if the administration comes up with those new rules in the next year.

Some states already impose standards on existing coal power plants. Hawkins, with the NRDC, said those state regulations will likely stay in place as long as they fall in line with the Obama administration’s regulations.

“This is a serious challenge — but it’s one uniquely suited to America’s strengths,” Obama said in the video released Saturday.