When the Obama administration unveils its plan today for fighting climate change by clamping down on power plant emissions, it will try to get the rest of the nation to join an effort already underway in Maryland and a number of other states.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy is expected to announce rules under the Clean Air Act to cut carbon pollution from existing power plants, the single largest source of climate-warming emissions in the United States. The regulation is a linchpin in President Barack Obama's strategy to tackle climate change, and promises to be one of the most contentious initiatives in the remainder of his term in office.
Administration officials have kept details under wraps, but people familiar with the plan have said the rule will propose a 30 percent reduction by 2030. That target could be one of several options the EPA presents for public comment, environmentalists said. EPA officials have broadly characterized the rule as a "common sense and flexible approach" and suggested states would have leeway in deciding how to reach it.
"States will be able to chart their own course to achieving the goal," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., one of several senior House Democrats briefed last week by John Podesta, the president's top adviser on climate change.
Maryland is in "a good position," Van Hollen added, because of steps it has already taken to combat climate change. Maryland joined with other Mid-Atlantic and New England states seven years ago in a pioneering effort to reduce power plants' climate-altering emissions.
The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative imposed a cap on how much carbon dioxide plants in participating states could emit, then auctioned off pollution "allowances" to those facilities. The market-based regulatory program gives power plant operators flexibility in deciding how to comply, while raising hundreds of millions of dollars for the states to spend at least partially offsetting the plant's emissions through energy-efficiency initiatives and development of wind, solar and other renewable power projects.
Kathy M. Kinsey, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment, said federal officials have "sent a number of signals" that states can take similar approaches to reduce carbon pollution within their borders.
Kinsey said state officials are "very hopeful that not much at all is going to have to change" in the regional initiative to comply with the new EPA rule. "The program has been very successful," she added. "We have established a cap that is binding [and] we have the ability to reduce that cap to meet any federal requirements."
The states initially set a relatively loose cap on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, but Kinsey said emissions have nonetheless declined 40 percent overall since the initiative began. Much of that decline likely stemmed from power plants switching from burning coal to cheaper, less polluting natural gas, Kinsey acknowledged. But she said the regulatory program also played a role in lowering emissions.
The auctions of pollution allowances, meanwhile, have yielded more than $230 million for Maryland since 2008, according to a tally provided by the Maryland Energy Administration. Most of the money paid for energy-efficiency efforts, such as improving insulation and sealing air leaks in homes and apartments, paying rebates to consumers who buy more efficient appliances, and installing electric-vehicle charging stations. Funds also went to train more than 900 workers in making energy efficiency upgrades, and Maryland lawmakers directed about $100 million to help the poor pay their utility bills.
Participating states agreed last year to lower the overall carbon emissions cap by 45 percent. Kinsey noted pollution allowances had more than doubled in price since the reduction, either reflecting the smaller number available or anticipating further reductions as a result of the EPA's anticipated action.
Maryland also has set goals for reducing energy consumption, for getting 20 percent of its electricity from wind, solar and other renewable sources, and for reducing the state's emissions of climate-altering gases from all sources by 25 percent by the end of this decade. The EPA may allow such efforts to comply with its new rules, observers suggest.
"Some states like Maryland are already ahead of the game, and others are going to have to work harder to catch up," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, an environmental nonprofit.
Despite state efforts to date, Maryland is unlikely to escape all impact from the EPA rule, observers say.
"We still burn a lot of coal in this state," said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. There are seven coal-burning power plants operating in the state, according to MDE's Kinsey. The owner of two Washington-area plants, NRG Energy, declared its intent late last year to deactivate its coal-fired units, saying compliance with new air pollution control requirements for them were not economical at the time because of cheap natural gas prices. The company has since delayed their de-activation by a year until May 2018. Kinsey said it's too early to tell if the EPA rule will prompt other power plant closures.
"Its going to put a burden on all states, but it's going to put a proportionately greater burden on states that have not done anything yet," predicted Dallas Burtraw, who studies environmental impacts of electricity generation at Resources for the Future, a Washington think tank.
Even before the EPA unveils the details, it's already reviving political debate over climate change, and observers predict lawsuits could tie up the rules for years.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a report last week warning more than 200,000 jobs would be lost, with $50 billion in economic losses annually. The Natural Resources Defense Council countered with a prediction the limits would save American households and businesses $37 billion on their electric bills by 2020 and create more than 270,000 jobs.
"Whatever is announced it's only the first battle," O'Donnell said, adding, "and there are going to be many, many more to go before we see how this ultimately shakes out."
The rule is likely to draw fire from Republicans, who have blocked any congressional action on climate since Obama's first term, as well as from some Democrats, especially from coal-producing states, who worry the rules could jeopardize their reelection chances. Van Hollen, who represents Montgomery County, said he and other Democratic leaders look forward to renewing the debate.
"The president's been clear," Van Hollen said. "His preferred approach would be to engage with Republican and develop a national legislative approach." But with that route stymied, Van Hollen said Obama is "moving ahead" with executive and regulatory actions.
"I think the public is interested in serious responses to serious challenges," Van Hollen said, adding, "I think this will be part of the discussion right through the 2016 election."
Tribune Newspapers and Bloomberg contributed to this story.