Landmark EPA Rule Promises to Spur Renewable Energy for Wildlife

Today is a momentous day for the future of the planet.  For the first time, rules have been proposed to put meaningful limits on the largest source of carbon pollution: our power sector, which accounts for about 40 percent of all U.S. carbon emissions.

These rules will be issued by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act.  They use existing authority to give states compliance options that will cut carbon pollution, and could serve to spur increased investments in wildlife friendly renewable energy.

This polar bear was awaiting the return of sea ice near Churchill, Manitoba. Warmer temperatures have kept sea ice from forming as early as it used to, and polar bears are waiting on shore without food for longer periods of time. Photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Lara Ferraro.

This polar bear was awaiting the return of sea ice near Churchill, Manitoba. Warmer temperatures mean sea ice forms later in the year, and polar bears are waiting on shore without food for longer periods of time. Photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Lara Ferraro.

The need for the rules have been well documented.  It is beyond doubt that our thirst for fossil fuels is causing the Earth’s climate to change – quickly, drastically, and before our eyes.  Climate change threatens to cause the extinction of up to half of the world’s species and is having devastating impacts on wildlife. It will also make the increasingly severe droughts, floods, sea-level rise, forest fires, and other extreme weather events more frequent and less manageable.

Where Does EPA’s Authority for the Rule Come From?

Since 1970, the Clean Air Act has protected Americans from air pollution.  The Clean Air Act has been one of the nation’s most successful statutes, protecting Americans and wildlife from dirty air, smog and acid rain, spurring innovation, and saving countless dollars from pollution related problems, including serious health conditions.  The Clean Air Act has been so successful in large part because it relies on a cooperative relationship between the federal government and the states.  This has allowed for flexibility to clean up pollution.

In a landmark Supreme Court case seven years ago – Massachusetts v. EPA – the Justices found that greenhouse gases were pollutants regulated under the Act.  This ruling meant that if EPA found that carbon pollution endangers public health and welfare, EPA must limit their emissions from new cars and trucks.

In 2009, based on the overwhelmingly evidence, EPA found that carbon pollution does endanger public health and welfare.  As a result, in 2010 and 2012, EPA set tough new standards to reduce carbon pollution from new cars and SUVS, as well as from trucks and buses.

In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled in American Electric Power v. Connecticut that EPA must also cut carbon pollution from the nation’s power plants. This authority comes under Section 111 of the Act which directs EPA to set performance standards for power plants and other stationary sources.  Section 111 has two primary parts.  Section 111(b) governs new facilities that have not been built (EPA has already put forth proposed rules to reduce emissions from new plants).  Section 111(d) covers existing power plants.

For existing power plants, EPA issues guidelines setting forth the “best system for emissions reductions.”  States then have to adopt and submit a plan to achieve these reductions.  EPA must approve the plan, and a state’s failure to submit an acceptable plan results in EPA putting in place a plan for the state.

What Has EPA Proposed to Reduce Carbon Pollution from Existing Plants?

Building on the flexibility that the Clean Air Act allows, EPA has proposed an array of options.  States will be responsible for meeting an overall reduction goal, which will vary state to state.  The best of which allow states to put in place innovative measures that will spur a needed and economically beneficial rapid transition to clean, renewable, wildlife-friendly energy sources. In short, the rule will look for cuts by: (1) improving the performance of existing plants; (2) shifting to increased reliance on cleaner plants; (3) promoting increased use of non-emitting renewable energy sources; and (4) efficiency measures that greatly reduce energy demand.

Unlike many regulations that focus solely on the source of pollution – like the power plant stack – and only set a limit on that source, EPA is seeking to allow an approach that looks at the entire power sector of states and allows for reductions to come through creative system wide measures.  This approach allows for compliance measures “outside the fence” – or from sources and actions not directly regulated because they don’t emit carbon pollution – such as renewable energy and efficiency measures.

Such an approach not only ensures much greater reductions will occur, but gives incentives for states to rapidly develop renewable energy sources and promote energy efficiency to reduce their overall carbon pollution emissions.  States can also team up to achieve compliance through region-wide cap and trade systems.

Building On States’ Efforts to Promote Renewable Energy

EPA’s plan allows different states to have different rates of emissions reductions, acknowledging that some states are already ahead of the curve in terms of reducing carbon pollution whereas other states are still very reliant on carbon intensive sources.  States have two years to submit their plans, though extensions are possible.

Sunset behind the Buffalo Ridge wind farm taken near Lake Benton, Minnesota. Flickr photo by Nic McPhee.

Sunset behind the Buffalo Ridge wind farm taken near Lake Benton, Minnesota. Flickr photo by Nic McPhee.

The good news is that many states are already trending in the right direction and this rule will accelerate those efforts and push lagging states forward.  Wind and solar are already our fastest growing power sources; this rule will hasten that needed trend.

38 states have renewable energy standards or goals—which mandate that a certain portion of the state’s energy mix come from renewable sources—and 17 of those states require that 20 percent or more of the state’s energy come from renewable.

Also, more than half of the states have standards or goals for energy efficiency, so that less power is used.  And nine states have teamed up to implement a successful cap and trade system (the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative for many Northeastern states).  California has a such system as well, and may soon be joined by Oregon, Washington and the Canadian Province British Columbia.

We are seeing a landmark moment in the building of a clean energy future that protects wildlife and people.  In order to make the most of this moment, it is critical the EPA hears strong support for a plan that aims at high reductions using renewable energy.

Take ActionSpeak up for wildlife: tell the Environmental Protection Agency that you support the ground-breaking limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants!

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