New Regulations May Be Bad for Coal, but They’ll Be Good for Your Health

Greenhouse gas levels from coal plants rise and fall with emissions of deadly toxins.

The coal-fired Navajo Generating Station sends environmental toxins onto an Indian reservation while producing electricity for cities hundreds of miles away. (Photo: Aaron McCoy/Getty Images)

Jun 2, 2014· 1 MIN READ
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison Fairbrother has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

The Obama administration announced today proposed new rules aimed at curbing carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. If adopted, the rules may be the most significant step an American president has ever taken to combat climate change.

The new regulation proposes cutting carbon emissions from existing power plants by up to 30 percent by 2030, compared with 2005 levels. It will require individual states to come up with plans to reduce pollution from power companies in their states, which could involve investing in wind and solar energy or creating carbon cap-and-trade programs.

Coal plants are the single largest source of heat-trapping gases emitted in the U.S. Reducing the amount of greenhouse gas they produce would have an ancillary effect of cutting emissions of environmental toxins that cause tens of thousands of premature deaths annually. President Obama’s policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions also includes a 2013 Environmental Protection Agency rule to regulate emissions from any future power plants as well as stricter vehicle fuel-efficiency standards.

With this proposal, the administration makes good on a statement Obama made in his 2013 State of the Union address urging Congress to pursue market-based solutions to climate change. As an alternative, he said, “If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.”

With the proposed regulations on coal-fired plants, the Obama administration has bypassed Congress altogether, using instead its authority under the Clean Air Act. Passed in 1970 and signed by President Richard Nixon, the relevant amendments mandated that the EPA regulate any pollution that threatens public health.

In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA had the authority to regulate climate pollution under the act. A landmark 2009 EPA decision found that carbon emissions “threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations.”

The administration’s announcement comes on the heels of several studies released this year that point to the wide-ranging effects of an increasingly warming planet on human society.

In May, the National Climate Assessment found that water shortages, heat waves, wildfires, and torrential rains being felt around the nation will worsen as climate change progresses. Earlier this year, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced that the world’s food supply is increasingly at risk. Just last week, it was revealed that in April the Northern Hemisphere had experienced carbon dioxide levels of more than 400 parts per million for an entire month, a first.

Still, that Obama is using his executive authority to bypass Congress has some Republican legislators and constituents up in arms.

Even before the EPA’s new rule was released, conservative think tanks and fossil fuel industry groups began decrying it as a measure that will harm the economy and cost the American people jobs. “The politics of scaring people to death over climate change are probably more dangerous than the weather,” said Patrick J. Michaels, director of the Koch brothers–funded Center for the Study of Science.

But a Yale University poll released last week shows that most Americans support strict regulations on carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants, and there is evidence that states have had an easier time reducing their carbon footprint than they expected.