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Washington • President Barack Obama's plan to curb climate change could transform American energy, potentially dealing a blow to the coal-fired power plants that supply much of the nation's electricity but also pump planet-warming gases into the atmosphere.
Obama rolled out his long-awaited plan in a speech last week that outlined broad goals but left the specifics to be worked out over the coming months.
"The question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it is too late," he said in a speech at Georgetown University. "And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world we leave behind, not just to you but to your children and your grandchildren."
The president signaled for the first time that he will block the controversial Keystone pipeline if it's shown that it would worsen climate change. Keystone would tap Canadian oil sands that produce more greenhouse gases than other sources, but the State Department downplayed the climate impact in a highly disputed report. "The pipeline's impact on our climate will be absolutely critical in determining whether this project will go forward," Obama said.
The overall plan the president rolled out calls for boosting renewable energy and efficiency standards for appliances and federal buildings, and preparing the nation for the extreme weather impacts of a changing planet.
"We're going to need to get prepared," he said. "And that's why this plan will also protect critical sectors of our economy and prepare the United States for the impacts of climate change that we cannot avoid. States and cities across the country are already taking it upon themselves to get ready. Miami Beach is hardening its water supply against seeping salt water. We're partnering with the state of Florida to restore Florida's natural clean-water delivery system: the Everglades."
The centerpiece of Obama's blueprint is his promise to limit the greenhouse gas emissions of America's power plants. The plants produce an estimated 40 percent of the nation's carbon dioxide emissions that scientists link to global warming.
His proposed new regulations could increase utility costs for American consumers and harm regional economies tied to coal, which generates about 37 percent of all U.S. electricity. Coal already is suffering as utilities switch to cheap and cleaner-burning natural gas, and pollution limits would speed its decline.
Stocks of some major coal companies dropped in advance of Obama's announcement. Coal-state senators called the proposed regulations a "war on coal" that would hurt the economies and jobs in their states and the entire country.
"Declaring a 'war on coal' is tantamount to declaring a 'war on jobs.' It's tantamount to kicking the ladder out from beneath the feet of many Americans struggling in today's economy," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate minority leader.
"Removing coal from our energy mix will have disastrous consequences for our recovering economy," said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. "These policies punish American businesses by putting them at a competitive disadvantage with our global competitors. And those competitors burn seven-eighths of the world's coal, and they're not going to stop using coal anytime soon."
Kevin Book, an analyst at Washington-based ClearView Energy Partners, said it was reasonable to assume that Obama's climate change policies would lead to marginally higher bills for utility customers.
"Cleaner is almost always more expensive," Book said. "But clean is not usually as expensive as initially feared."
New carbon pollution limits, combined with previously announced mercury rules, could mean a major wave of coal-fired power plant closures over the next decade, Book said. The Obama administration already has been working on carbon pollution rules for new coal-fired plants that could mean that few, if any, of those are built, Book said.
"Coal power could cease to exist," warned the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a leading coal industry trade group.
Jeff Holmstead, who represents utility clients at the Washington law firm Bracewell and Giuliani, said it wasn't clear how far the Environmental Protection Agency could go legally in limiting greenhouse gases.
It's too soon to tell what impact Obama's plan may have, he said. "There was no substance at all to the president's proposal, he just said, 'EPA, go develop a regulation on a certain timetable,' " Holmstead said.
Daniel Weiss, an energy and climate specialist at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning research center in Washington, said Obama's announcement was a major shift.
"President Obama's climate plan will make a big difference in U.S. emissions because it targets our No. 1 source of climate pollution: power plants," he said.
The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that it would cost at least $4 billion for utilities to comply with new regulations. The environmental group estimates as much as $25 billion to $60 billion in benefits, however, including the health benefits of switching to energy sources that produce less soot.
Obama said criticism of his plan as a job-killer showed a lack of faith in American business and ingenuity. A low-carbon energy economy can drive growth, he said, and the nation must tackle climate change.
"We don't have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society," he said. "Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer but it's not going to protect you from the coming storm."
The president left the details to be settled later. He's directing the EPA to work with states and industry to set the new pollution standards. He wants the rules finalized by June 2015.
The billion-dollar trade-off
Estimates show it could cost at least $4 billion for utilities to comply with new regulations, which could be accompanied by as much as $25 billion to $60 billion in benefits, including the health benefits of switching to energy sources that produce less soot.
Source: The Natural Resources Defense Council