Obama’s clean power plan: Is America finally getting serious about a clean energy future?

28th Aug 2015

President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which seeks to set carbon emission limits on power plants and expand the clean energy economy, as part of his larger Climate Action Plan, has elicited a wide variety of responses since it was unveiled in early August, some deeming it a “war on coal”, while environmentalists, though some exultant, believe more needs to be done to avert climate disaster. Regardless, it is a comprehensive plan within the President’s executive powers.

The goal of the Clean Power Plan is to reduce carbon emissions by 32% from 2005 levels by 2030. The plan will cut utility costs as well as healthcare costs over the long term, and hopefully mitigate climate disasters, which are also costly. With the UN Climate Conference around the corner in Paris this December, it seemed like the right time for Obama to unveil such a plan, showing the rest of the world that the US is serious about its commitment to emissions reductions.

The plan gives states the freedom to decide how to make such cuts; they have until 2016 (but can request an extension until 2018) to submit plans and until 2022 t comply; if they are unable or unwilling to draft a plan, the EPA will come up with one for them.

According to the White House website, “Power plants are the largest major source of emissions in the US, together accounting for roughly one-third of all domestic greenhouse gas pollution.” The Clean Air Act, signed into law by Republican President Nixon in 1970, set out to regulate air pollution and “authorizes EPA to establish National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) to protect public health and public welfare and to regulate emissions of hazardous air pollutants.” In 2007, the Supreme Court case Massachusetts v. EPA concluded that carbon was, in fact, an “air pollutant” and could, thus, be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Though Republicans and states with major coal industries, such as Kentucky, Wyoming, and West Virginia, are deeming the plan a “war on coal,” part of Obama’s plan and budget, takes these coal industry workers into account. The POWER+ (Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization) plan “provides dedicated new resources for economic diversification, job creation, job training and other employment services for workers and communities impacted by layoffs at coal mines and coal-fired power plants.” Obama understands that transitioning the economy will not be easy for everyone, but believes that “there is such a thing as being too late” and, therefore, is willing to make the tough and necessary decisions to usher America out of the fossil fuel era.

With the next presidential election around the corner, one might wonder what a Republican win would mean for the new climate policy. Thought it may be difficult to dismantle the plan entirely, there are ways to curtail its impacts. According to Vox, a Republican president could: sign a bill amending the Clean Air Act so that the EPA does not have authority to regulate carbon emissions, implement the plan very loosely by giving a lot of compliance flexibility, or even loosen the fuel economy standards that Obama put into place. On the other side of the fence, a Democratic win could mean an expansion of the climate policy; cracking down on methane leaks, expanding fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks, and strengthening energy efficiency standards for homes and buildings.

The public health concerns related to climate change are great indeed, and minorities are disproportionately affected. According to The Guardian, “African-Americans are more likely to live near environmental hazards like power plants and be exposed to hazardous air pollution, including higher levels of nitrogen oxides, ozone, particulate matter and carbon dioxide than their white counterparts. The presence of these pollutants increases rates of asthma, respiratory illness and cardiovascular disease.” The CPP claims that 90,000 asthma attacks in children will be averted by 2030 if the plan is fully implemented. This speaks to the fact that climate change is more than an environmental issue, it is a justice issue.

It is clear that Obama is ready to leave a legacy, and he is willing to do it without the help of Congress. The US is one of the world’s largest polluters, and is already seeing the effects of climate change. California’s drought and wildfires are contributing to increased food prices, and severe weather costs the nation billions each year. The Clean Power Plan seeks to reduce costs over the long term by investing in the future now, and whether every aspect is properly implemented or not, Obama is setting a precedent that he hopes the rest of the world will follow.
Sarah Sakeena Marshall, B.S. Environmental Policy

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