WASHINGTON – A new pollution rule the Obama administration plans to announce Monday will be a cornerstone of the president’s environmental legacy and arguably the most significant U.S. environmental regulation in decades. But it is not one the White House wanted.
As with other issues, the regulation to limit the pollution blamed for global warming from power plants is a compromise for President Barack Obama, who again finds himself caught between his aspirations and what is politically and legally possible.
It will provoke a messy and drawn-out fight with states and companies that produce electricity, and may not be settled until the eve of the next presidential election in 2016, or even beyond. Critics say the plan will drive up costs, kill jobs and damage a fragile economy.
At the crux of the problem is Obama’s use of a 1970 law that was not intended to regulate the gases blamed for global warming. Obama was forced to rely on the Clean Air Act after he tried and failed to get Congress to pass a new law during his first term. When the Republicans took over the House of Representatives, the goal became impossible and Obama had to fall back to an alternate plan.
“For anybody who cares about this issue, this is it,” Heather Zichal, Obama’s former energy and climate adviser, said in an interview. “This is all the president has in his toolbox.”
The rule will tap the president’s executive powers to tackle the single largest source of the pollution blamed for heating the planet: carbon dioxide emitted from power plants. They produce about 40 percent of the electricity in the U.S. and about one-third of the carbon pollution that makes the U.S. the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
“There are no national limits to the amount of carbon pollution that existing plants can pump into the air we breathe. None,” Obama said Saturday in his weekly radio and Internet address released Saturday. “We limit the amount of toxic chemicals like mercury, sulfur and arsenic that power plants put in our air and water. But they can dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air. It’s not smart, it’s not safe and it doesn’t make sense.”
Traditionally, the president records his weekly address at the White House. But on Friday, Obama traveled to Children’s National Medical Center, where medical equipment and white lab coats formed the backdrop for Obama to argue that by targeting carbon dioxide, his administration is shifting the U.S. away from dirty fuels that dump harmful pollutants into the air.
He also met young asthma patients there, the White House said. “In America, we don’t have to choose between the health of our economy and the health of our children,” he said.
White House officials have been fanning out across Washington and the country to build support and reassure those concerned about the coming rules. Among those worried are a number of Democrats from conservative areas who have openly criticized the rules as they prepare for difficult re-election fights in November. Obama will echo his argument that the rules will benefit public health during a conference call Monday organized by the American Lung Association and other health groups.
The specifics of the plan have been closely guarded. Environmental advocates and industry representatives alike are anxiously awaiting details such as the size of the reductions the government will mandate and what baseline those reductions will be measured against.
The Chamber of Commerce, an influential pro-business lobbying group, said the rule will cost $50 billion to the economy and kill jobs.
But Obama accused special interests and like-minded lawmakers of repeating false claims about harmful economic effects from the new rules, which the EPA is already preparing to defend in court once the inevitable legal challenges roll in. Every time the U.S. has sought to clean up its air and water, cynics have cried wolf, only to be proved wrong, Obama said.
Obama asserted that in their first year in effect, the rules will prevent up to 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks. There is no direct connection between greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and asthma attacks or other respiratory illnesses. But coal-fired power plants that emit high levels of greenhouse gases also pump other pollutants into the air that do affect health.
The new rule to be released Monday will allow states to require power plants to make changes such as switching from coal to natural gas or enact other programs to reduce demand for electricity and produce more energy from renewable sources.
They also can set up pollution-trading markets, as 10 other states already have done to offer more flexibility in how plants cut emissions. Plans from states will not be due until 2016, but the rule will become final a year before.