Obama taking a cue from Maryland on climate

EPA rule to curb carbon pollution from power plants would leave method to states

June 02, 2014|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

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.

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