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What Obama's climate plan means for Pennsylvania

Background

The Obama administration has proposed federal rules to cub carbon emissions from existing and future power plants.

AP Photo/John Amis

The Obama administration has proposed new federal rules to curb carbon emissions from existing and future power plants.

In June 2013 President Obama announced he would use his executive power to take steps to combat climate change.

“I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing,” he said in a speech at Georgetown University unveiling the plan.

The overall goal is a 30 percent reduction in emissions nationwide by the year 2030. States will be directed to craft plans to meet their own specific targets.

Pennsylvania— the nation’s third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide and fourth-largest coal producer–would be required to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by about 32 percent over the next 15 years. The president’s most controversial move is directing the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to require cuts to greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. The agency has also proposed rules to limit emissions from all future power plants.

Obama is also promoting the expanded use of renewable energy. Pennsylvania is one of 35 states that already sets targets for renewable energy through its Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard (AEPS). Passed in 2004, the law requires the state’s utilities to purchase eight percent of their overall power from so-called “tier 1” alternative sources– like wind and solar– by 2021.

The White House plan has been sharply criticized by the coal industry. The Pennsylvania Coal Alliance calls Obama’s plan “the biggest obstacle to continued coal use that has confronted the industry in decades” and says it’s a “de facto attempt to transform America’s energy usage away from coal.”

Coal currently supports over 8,000 direct mining jobs in Pennsylvania and supplies about 40 percent of the state’s electric power.

Aside from the new federal rules, the coal industry has also faced increasing competition from low-priced natural gas. Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale has rapidly become one of the most productive gas plays on the planet and power plants have been shifting from coal to natural gas. Obama has touted the role of natural gas in reducing carbon emissions.

Nationally, energy-related carbon emissions have reached their lowest level in 20 years, in part due to the surge in natural gas use, which produces less carbon pollution compared to coal. However scientists are still trying to determine the overall role of gas in climate change by tracking methane leaks and emissions. Methane is much more potent as a heat trapping greenhouse gas, compared to carbon dioxide. As part of the climate plan, the Obama administration has also announced efforts to cut methane emissions from natural gas systems.

In a surprise decision in early 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a temporary stay on the Clean Power Plan. The court said legal challenges had to get settled first. Twenty-seven states and the coal industry sued the EPA over the new rules. The unprecedented 5-4 decision signaled that the plan may not hold up to scrutiny by the Supreme court.

But the recent death of justice Antonin Scalia now splits the court evenly between liberals and conservatives, which could end up tying the court’s hands. Any 4-4 decision by the Supreme Court means the lower court decision would prevail, so fate of the Clean Power Plan may now be in the hands of the liberal-leaning D.C. Circuit Court.

President-elect Donald Trump has pledged to undo many of Obama’s environmental initiatives, including the Clean Power Plan.

 

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