WASHINGTON – Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy vigorously defended the Obama administration’s new carbon pollution standards for coal-fired power plants, insisting that the emissions reduction plan will provide important health benefits to the nation’s most vulnerable citizens, including children.
Appearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee – and fending off a barrage of criticism from the panel’s Republican members – McCarthy said coal-fired power plants are the largest carbon producers in the U.S., accounting for about one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions.
The EPA plan will cut hundreds of millions of tons of carbon pollution and hundreds of thousands of tons of other harmful air pollutants.
“All told, in 2030, when states meet their goals, our proposal will result in about 30 percent less carbon pollution from the power sector across the U.S. when compared with 2005 levels – 730 million metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the air,” she told the panel. “In addition, we will cut pollution that causes smog and soot by more than 25 percent.”
In the first year alone, McCarthy said, the reductions will result in 100,000 fewer asthma attacks and 2,100 fewer heart attacks. Those sorts of benefits will steadily rise. By 2030, the regulations will result in climate and health benefits resulting in a savings of up to $90 billion.
“And for soot and smog reductions alone, that means for every dollar we invest in the plan, families will see $7 in health benefits,” she said. “And because energy efficiency is such a smart, cost-effective strategy, we predict that, in 2030, average electricity bills for American families will be 8 percent cheaper.”
But McCarthy’s claims were quickly dismissed by the committee’s GOP members, who maintain the strict new regulations represent a sop to environmental interests. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), the ranking member, said there are “so many issues with this proposal that it’s impossible to say anything good about it.”
The new standards, Vitter said, are “fundamentally similar” to proposals issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council and result in the EPA “insisting that states ration electricity and limit consumer choice, especially if that choice involves using more electricity.”
“EPA’s proposed rule will increase costs to families, schools, hospitals, and businesses, and will, as always, hit the poor, the elderly, and those on fixed incomes the hardest,” Vitter said. “In reality, it is essentially a federal takeover of the American electricity system. I, for one, am not comfortable with this EPA takeover, and neither are the people of Louisiana.”
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) asserted that the EPA is implementing an “oppressive climate agenda” that could “negatively impact every single American.”
“The consequences of the administration’s proposed rule would be disastrous for our economy and would have miniscule impact on the environment,” Wicker said. “In summary, the proposed rule is a breathtaking regulatory overreach. It is a job-killer. It is based on questionable science. It is of dubious legality under the Clean Air Act. It amounts to an end-run against Congress. It is inflexible. It would have no effect on the climate and is therefore pointless, and it is punitive.”
Wicker, and other GOP lawmakers, cited the new regulations as another example of what they have termed the Obama administration’s “war on coal.” McCarthy said her agency is reacting to the threat of global climate change.
“Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time,” McCarthy said. “It already threatens human health and welfare and economic well-being, and if left unchecked, it will have devastating impacts on the U.S. and the planet. The science is clear. The risks are clear. And the high costs of climate inaction are clear. We must act.”
But Wicker rejected those claims, noting that while coal consumption has soared worldwide the global average temperatures have stagnated over the past 17 years.
“Regardless, the administration continues to defend its heavy-handed climate regulations with assertions that global average temperatures are on the rise,” he said.
Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke expressed support for the new rules, maintaining that McCarthy in her testimony “laid out a compelling, crystal-clear case for combating climate change. From the other side we heard only the same tired voices of doom, denial and defeatism.”
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), meanwhile, accused the NRDC, which he described as a “wealthy, elite, powerful lobbying machine with more influence over decision making in Washington than an ordinary American citizen,” of writing the regulations.
“They have millions, which gives them access,” Barrasso said. “The EPA has turned a deaf ear on those who don’t. It should come as no surprise that this is how the EPA’s regulations for new and existing power plants was hatched.”
The proposed new rules creates a national framework to set state-specific goals to cut carbon pollution per megawatt hour of electricity generated and authorizes the states to determine how to best meet those goals. The EPA is in the midst of a 120-day comment period to collect feedback on the package.
“This proposal sets targets and a reasonable schedule that can be achieved by every state, using measures they choose themselves to suit their own needs,” McCarthy said.
The agency intends to finalize the regulations by the middle of 2015 but that goal is liable to be extended – already nine states have sued the agency over the proposal.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the committee chairwoman, said the proposal “will not only protect public health and save lives, it will enable America to lead the way to avert the most calamitous impacts of climate change — such as sea level rise, dangerous heat waves, and economic disruption. We must safeguard our children, our grandchildren, and future generations.”
Boxer noted that the rules are being promulgated under the Clean Air Act, created by bipartisan consensus in 1970 during the administration of President Richard Nixon. Since being signed into law, emissions of common air pollutants have dropped 72 percent.
“The president’s proposal will create thousands of jobs while ensuring that big polluters reduce their dangerous contributions to climate change,” Boxer said. “The plan is also respectful of the states’ roles and allows major flexibility. Climate change is happening now and we cannot afford to wait.”