EPA unveils Clean Power Plan, as faith groups quick to embrace

Smoke rises from the coal-fired Mountaineer Power Plant, in New Haven, W.Va., in this file photo. The U.S. Environmental Agency released Aug. 4 its Clean Power Plan, which seeks to reduce carbon emissions from coal- and gas-fired power plants by 32 percent by 2030. (CNS photo/Jim West)

Smoke rises from the coal-fired Mountaineer Power Plant, in New Haven, W.Va., in this file photo. The U.S. Environmental Agency released Aug. 4 its Clean Power Plan, which seeks to reduce carbon emissions from coal- and gas-fired power plants by 32 percent by 2030. (CNS photo/Jim West)

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued Monday the final version of the first-ever national standards to reduce carbon pollution from power plants, what President Barack Obama called “the single most important step America has ever taken in the fight against global climate change.”

At a White House unveiling of the Clean Power Plan, Obama said of the challenges he has faced in office  -- the Great Recession, ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, strengthening national security -- “I am convinced that no challenge poses a greater threat to our future and future generations than a changing climate.” Quoting Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, he said the current generation is the first to feel the impact of climate change and the last able to do something about it.

“This blue marble belongs to all of us. … We only get one home. We only get one planet,” Obama said.

Faith-based groups, including the U.S. bishops, quickly embraced the plan, with many aligning action on curbing fossil fuel emissions with themes from Pope Francis’ recent environmental encyclical.

The Clean Power Plan, under the Clean Air Act, targets reducing carbon pollution from the power sector by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 -- up from the 30 percent goal set last summer in the initial proposal -- and dropping sulfur dioxide emissions by 90 percent and nitrous oxide emissions by 72 percent.

The final rule, which drew 4.3 million comments in its commenting period, also pushes back the deadline for states to comply from 2020 to 2022, in part to allow enough time to implement plans without risking the reliability of the national electricity supply.

The plan provides state-specific goals and flexibility in meeting emissions targets, such as partnering with other states, emissions trading or implementing renewables and efficiency programs. In addition, it includes state incentives to invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency measures, and calls for increases of 30 percent in renewable energy generation and 28 percent in energy capacity from renewable sources. At the same time, it projects coal and natural gas will remain in 2030 the leading sources of electricity generation, at 27 percent and 33 percent, respectively.

States must submit final plans for implementing carbon emission performance rates by September 2016, or submit an initial plan at that time and request a two-year extension.

EPA estimated the cost of the plan at $8.4 billion, and projected that by 2030, it would reduce electrical bills by $7 a month and lead to $34 billion to $54 billion in public health and climate benefits. The president and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy emphasized the near-term health benefits of reducing pollution, estimating the rule will avoid annually 3,600 premature deaths, 1,700 heart attacks, 90,000 asthma attacks and 300,000 missed work and school days.

McCarthy, a Catholic who in January met with Vatican officials in Rome to discuss U.S. climate initiatives, said climate change “is one of the most important issues we face as a country and as citizens of this world.”

“It impacts our health, our safety and our livelihoods, but one thing is crystal clear: Acting on climate has become what it is -- a moral responsibility,” she said.

In a statement, Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said the bishops welcomed the national standards as “an important step forward to protect the health of all people, especially children, the elderly, and poor and vulnerable communities, from harmful pollution and the impacts of climate change.”

The standards also received backing from Interfaith Power and Light, which has encouraged congregations to adopt energy efficiency programs and support renewable energy.

“Faith communities have been gathering comments and testifying in favor of this plan for years, because it’s a matter of climate justice and a historic step towards protecting all of God’s creation,” said Franciscan Sr. Joan Brown, executive director of New Mexico Interfaith Power & Light, who last month was among the “Champions of Change” honorees at the White House for work on addressing climate change.

Approximately 30 college students and staff from seven schools sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy planned to meet Wednesday with legislators on Capitol Hill to ask their support of the Clean Power Plan. In partnership with the Catholic Climate Covenant, the Mercy Sisters also planned a panel discussion Tuesday to prepare the students in connecting their faith values with the climate issue. 

More: "Evangelicals back carbon reduction plan" (July 31, 2015)

The Clean Power Plan is a central cog to the president’s overall climate action plan and the U.S. pledge to curb its greenhouse gas emissions -- a 26 to 28 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2025 -- ahead of the December United Nations climate negotiations in Paris, where world leaders could sign an international agreement to combat climate change.

Curbing carbon emissions is viewed as an essential component to addressing global climate change. A consensus among 97 percent of climate scientists has concluded that climate change is occurring and largely human-driven. 2014 was the warmest year ever recorded, and 14 of the warmest 15 years on record have occurred since the turn of the century.

“The Clean Power Plan provides us with our best shot to meet our international climate goals and lead the rest of the world towards a strong international climate agreement,” said Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a statement.

Carbon dioxide accounts for roughly three-quarters of global emissions and more than 80 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. A third of U.S. carbon emissions come from fossil fuel-fired power plants -- the largest source of such emissions, and more than those from cars, airplanes and homes combined.

According to a 2015 Bloomberg Finance report, U.S. carbon emissions from the energy sector have decreased 7.6 percent since 2005, and about 9 percent since their peak in 2007. But from 2012-2014, emissions rose roughly 3.7 percent.

During the rollout, Obama thanked several individuals for their leadership on the climate issue, including Holy Cross Sr. Joan Marie Steadman, executive director of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, who stood alongside others behind the president.

“And she’s got a pretty important guy on her side,” he said. “As Pope Francis made clear in his encyclical this summer, taking a stand against climate change is a moral obligation, and Sister Steadman is living up to that obligation every single day.”

The Clean Power Plan comes barely six weeks after Francis released his environmental encyclical and roughly four months before Paris climate talks. Six days after the release of “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” Wenski cited the encyclical in urging Congress to oppose efforts to roadblock the Clean Power Plan.

“As government leaders, we ask you to resist any effort to impair the development of a national carbon standard and instead to support our nation’s ability to address this urgent global challenge confronting the human family,” he wrote in a June 24 letter, his third letter to government officials regarding power plant carbon standards.

In chapter five of Laudato Si’, Francis wrote, “With re­gard to climate change, the advances have been regrettably few. Reducing greenhouse gases re­quires honesty, courage and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are more powerful and pollute the most.”

Though he refrained from specific policy recommendations for addressing climate change and environmental degradation, the pope said of energy, “We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels -- especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas -- needs to be progressively replaced without delay.”

Francis also warned against emission-reducing strategies that impose burdensome commitments on developing countries and the poor, and singled out carbon credits as “a new form of speculation … maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.” He urged countries to place the global common good above national interests, and said “We believers cannot fail to ask God for a positive outcome” to international climate negotiations.

Nearly two-thirds of all Americans favor stricter emissions limits on power plants to address climate change, according to a November 2014 Pew Research Center survey. A March poll from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found 70 percent of Americans supporting limits on existing coal-fired plants and 29 percent opposed. Broken down by state, the Yale poll found just four where support fell below 50 percent: Alaska, North Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Along political lines, the Pew survey found support strongest among liberals (82 percent) and moderates (72 percent), with conservatives largely split (45 percent favor, 47 percent oppose). While Republicans overall supported emissions limits (50 percent favor, 47 percent oppose), divisions emerged when broken into segments: Only 26 percent of Tea Party Republicans support such regulations, with 71 percent against; remaining Republicans support emissions limits by a near 2:1 margin.

Ahead of the first Republican debate of the 2016 presidential cycle Thursday, candidates lined up in opposition to the Clean Power Plan. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush called the carbon rule “irresponsible and overreaching.” U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (Texas) described it as a “lawless and radical attempt to destabilize the Nation’s energy system,” while Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker dubbed it the “Costly Power Plan,” which “will be like a buzz saw on the nation’s economy.” 

According to TheHill.com, Murray Energy Corp., the largest U.S. privately held coal company, has vowed five federal lawsuits against the carbon standards. Led by West Virginia’s attorney general, a contingent of state attorneys general said they plan to challenge the rule in courts.

Obama, anticipating the backlash, labeled such criticism “simply excuses for inaction,” and compared it to unproven rhetoric accompanying past environmental regulations. He also announced later this month he will become the first U.S. president to visit the Alaskan Arctic.

But criticism for the rules also came in charges of not robust enough. Politico’s Michael Grunwald questioned descriptions of Clean Power Plan as the strongest action taken by the U.S. on climate change, ranking ahead of it the 2009 stimulus package’s funding for clean energy, fuel standards for cars and trucks, and rules on mercury and other air pollutants that played a role in the retirement of 200 coal-fired power plants.

“This is the most significant action yet from the Obama administration, but it’s still not enough to secure his climate legacy.” said May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, in a statement. “Cutting coal emissions is low hanging fruit, the next challenge will be standing up to Big Oil.”

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is broewe@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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