Barack Obama moves to limit emissions from US power plants

The policy is designed to help tackle global warming, but is likely to face legal challenges

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 June, 2013, 2:47am


US President Barack Obama is preparing regulations to limit carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants, senior officials said, in a significant move towards addressing global warming.

But the policy is sure to provoke legal challenges from Republicans and some industries.

Power plants are the largest single source of global warming pollution in the United States, responsible for nearly 40 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

With sweeping climate legislation effectively dead in Congress, the decision on existing power plants - which a 2007 Supreme Court decision gave to the executive branch - has been among the most closely watched of Obama's second term.

The administration has already begun steps to restrict climate-altering emissions from any newly built power plants, but imposing carbon standards on the existing utility fleet would be more costly and contentious.

Obama is preparing to move soon, because rules as complex as those applying to power plants can take years to complete.

Experts say that, if Obama hopes to have a new set of greenhouse gas standards for utilities in place before he leaves office, he needs to begin before the end of this year.

Heather Zichal, the White House co-ordinator for energy and climate change, said Obama would announce climate policy initiatives in coming weeks. Another official said a presidential address outlining the new policy, which would also include new steps on renewable power and energy efficiency, could come as early as next week.

Zichal said none of the plans being considered by the administration required legislative action or new financing from Congress.

In Berlin on Wednesday, Obama echoed his assertive talk on climate policy since his re-election, talk that some climate advocates have criticised as going beyond his actions. He said the United States and the world had a moral imperative to take "bold action" to slow the warming of the planet.

"The grim alternative affects all nations - more severe storms, more famine and floods, new waves of refugees, coastlines that vanish, oceans that rise," Obama said. "This is the global threat of our time."

Republicans have criticised Obama's climate policy as government overreach that is holding back the economy.

But administration officials signalled that Obama had decided that the risks from climate change outweighed the potential economic and political costs from taking steps to address it.

"He is serious about making it a second-term priority," Zichal said at a forum on Wednesday in Washington sponsored by The New Republic magazine. "He knows this is a legacy issue."

Zichal suggested that a central part of the administration's approach to dealing with climate change would be to use the authority given to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address climate-altering pollutants from power plants under the Clean Air Act.

A 2007 Supreme Court decision gave the EPA authority to regulate greenhouse gases, and it has already done so for vehicles. Environmental advocates said that addressing power plant pollution must be the centrepiece of any serious climate policy.

"To paraphrase [Vice-President] Joe Biden, this is a big deal," said Daniel Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, an advocacy organisation. "Nothing he can do will cut greenhouse gases more."