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Power Plant Rules Are Critical for Curbing U.S. Emissions

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will soon unveil its first-ever emissions standards for existing power plants. These rules represent the most significant component of the U.S. Climate Action Plan—and moreover, they’re an essential step for overcoming the climate change challenge.

Why Are Power Plant Rules So Important?

As part of its international commitment to climate action, the United States pledged in 2009 to reduce its emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Then last year, President Obama announced his Climate Action Plan, citing the actions his administration would take to achieve the 17 percent target. The forthcoming power plant rules are a critical step for the administration to make good on its Climate Action Plan promises.

They’re also one of the most important steps the United States can take to curb climate change. Power plants are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, contributing about one-third of the national total. Controlling emissions from power plants represents the single-greatest opportunity to reduce U.S. emissions overall.

WRI’s report, Can the U.S. Get There From Here?, found that limiting pollution from power plants are a critical component in reducing emissions 17 percent by 2020, along with decreasing methane leakage from natural gas sites, phasing down the use of hydrofluorocarbons, and improving energy efficiency, amongst other measures.

For Many States, New Rules Won’t Be a Heavy Lift

Encouragingly, analysis shows that ambitious power plant emissions standards are both economically and logistically realistic. EPA has stated that its forthcoming rules will give states flexibility in how they meet the emissions standards, allowing them to reduce emissions in ways that work for their electricity systems. By building on the clean energy policies they have in place and taking advantage of tools and infrastructure already at their disposal—such as increased use of natural gas and improved energy efficiency at industrial facilities—many states are in a position to meet or even exceed ambitious emission standards. For example, Minnesota could see a 31 percent emission reduction (below 2011 levels) by 2020 through a combination of existing state policies and improved use of infrastructure. Wisconsin is positioned to reduce its emissions up to 43 percent by 2020 through similar methods.

Along with creating jobs and raising demand for in-state manufacturing, greater energy efficiency and renewable energy use can lower costs for both states and consumers. For example, one study found that reducing Arkansas’s energy consumption by 8 percent by 2020 would lead to $1.8 billion in total energy savings in 2020, with the average household saving $303 on their annual energy bill. According to the American Wind Energy Association, Wisconsin’s wind industry generated more than $1 billion in investments within the state as of 2012. And other states are seeing similar economic benefits.

Beyond 2020

While the Obama administration is acting on several fronts to reduce climate change—including the important release of efficiency and emission standards for trucks announced earlier this year—the EPA’s new regulations will be the most significant climate policy that the United States has ever enacted. It’s important that these standards are both flexible and implemented with a “go-getter” level of ambition in order to achieve the deep reductions the country needs.

It’s also important to keep in mind the need for deep, long-term emission reductions. To that end, the forthcoming power plant rules will not just be an indicator of whether the country will meet its 17 percent target in the short-term. They’ll reveal whether the Obama Administration is serious about putting the United States on a trajectory for a low-carbon future.

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