President Obama formally announced unprecedented limits on greenhouse emissions from power plants Monday, but the measures are expected to have limited impact on electricity generation facilities in Maine.
Obama described the rules as “the single most important step” that the country has taken to address climate change, and warned that failing to act could result in problems too severe to reverse. Opponents announced that they plan to fight the new rules in court and in Congress.
In Maine, supporters predicted that the national rules will help improve air quality throughout New England without forcing power plants in the region to make significant changes because they are already regulated under a regional emissions program. Maine also no longer has any of the coal-burning power plants considered the primary target of the emissions reductions.
The rules released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s power plants by an estimated average of 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, up from the 30 percent reduction proposed in the original version of the rules released last year. The new standards would give states flexibility to meet their individual target reductions while also providing additional time to develop and implement state plans.
The EPA appears to have relaxed Maine’s emissions reduction goals from last year’s version of the rules based, in part, on the state’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, a nine-state program for regulating carbon emissions from fossil fuel-burning power plants. Under the goals released Monday, Maine would have to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions per megawatt hour of electricity by 10.8 percent by the year 2030. State officials will have to submit a plan for achieving that goal but will likely work in concert with other RGGI states.
MAINE DEP SUPPORTS APPROACH
In a statement, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection said the agency “continues to agree with EPA’s proposed approach to reduce greenhouse gas production,” but noted that staff members are still reviewing the rules and whether federal regulators addressed concerns raised by the department in the past. A DEP spokesman declined to comment until after the review about whether the emissions goals were manageable.
The RGGI states have experienced a reduction of more than 40 percent in power plant CO2 pollution since 2005, according to RGGI’s website. The cooperative says that is equivalent to taking 245,000 cars off the road since 2005. However, most power plants in that region now use cleaner-burning natural gas instead of coal or oil, in large part because gas has been cheaper.
While supporters don’t see the need for major changes by Maine and New England power plants, they hope the rules will still improve air quality in the state by reducing the amount of pollution that drifts up the eastern seaboard to New England from mid-Atlantic and southern states.
Dr. Marguerite Pennoyer, a physician specializing in asthma and allergies who serves on the leadership board of the American Lung Association in Maine, called the EPA rules “a prescription for less ozone … and healthier air for all of us.”
“In many ways, the Clean Power Plan is about leveling the playing field,” Pennoyer said Monday. “It’s about making sure that Maine people don’t pay the price for cheap power produced elsewhere. Maine people have a lot to lose from climate change, and a lot to gain from the Clean Power Plan.”
“Maine really does have everything to gain,” said Dylan Voorhees of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “We have already taken bold and effective action. These national rules are long overdue.”
The rules will have the largest impact on coal-burning power plants because they are among the biggest sources of carbon dioxide. As a result, backlash against the rules has been strongest in coal-mining states and in southern and midwestern states where coal is the primary fuel for power plants. Opponents immediately announced plans to sue the Obama administration to halt the rules, and some Republicans in Congress indicated they would try to block the effort, both legislatively and through the budget process.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, speaking at a summit of Republican state attorneys general, said West Virginia would be among a group of states “launching an aggressive legal campaign against the Obama administration.”
“Their legal foundation is very, very shaky,” Morrisey told The Associated Press. “We are confident that we will prevail.”
Reaction to the rules was much more muted in New England, where power plants in the RGGI program already participate in what’s known as a “cap-and-trade” regulatory system in which carbon emissions allowances are bought and sold on a commodity market. RGGI was the first carbon regulating system in the nation.
Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, said members of his trade group are not expecting major changes under the new rules because the region was an “early adopter and mover on carbon emissions.”
“While there will likely have to be some touches around the edges, we’re not expecting a whole lot,” Dolan said. “To be honest, at this point (RGGI) is really just another piece of doing business in the marketplace.”
The owner of one of the six Maine power plants already regulated by RGGI said he supports the EPA rules.
“The Clean Power Plan represents a commitment to continuing the transition from carbon-intensive generation to efficient, low-carbon generation,” said Thad Hill, president and CEO of Calpine, which operates the natural gas-fired Westbrook Energy Center. “This flexible, market-based solution will reward the companies that invest and have invested smartly in cleaner generation. We applaud the EPA for its efforts throughout this collaborative process and look forward to working with the agency, states and other stakeholders as the rule is ultimately implemented.”
SIGNS OF CLIMATE CHANGE IN MAINE
While the political debate over global warming continues, Maine is already experiencing clear signs of a changing climate.
The Gulf of Maine is heating up faster than 99 percent of the world’s large bodies of saltwater, according to analyses conducted by scientists at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. From 1982 to 2004, water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine increased by about 0.05 degrees per year, but since then have been warming at a rate of roughly 0.5 degrees per year.
Scientists are unsure what is causing the gulf to warm faster than nearly every other saltwater body on the globe. But Maine lobstermen and Gulf of Maine fishermen – groups that don’t often fall on the far-left end of the political spectrum – have become concerned about climate change, having seen the effects first-hand as prime lobster-fishing grounds move farther up the coast and traditional warmer-water species begin to appear in their nets.
A warming climate would likely lead in Maine to a continued northward spread of ticks bearing Lyme disease, and could harm Maine’s maple syrup industry. But warmer spring and summer temperatures would also likely lead to a longer tourism season – which is already Maine’s top industry economically – as well as a longer growing season for Maine farmers.
Members of Maine’s congressional delegation had mixed reactions to the president’s announcement Monday:
n Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, praised Obama for taking “bold action” on climate change.
“Maine communities are already dealing with the effects of climate change and carbon emissions, including rising sea levels, more extreme weather and ocean acidification,” Pingree said in a written statement. “By reducing these emissions at their greatest source – power plants – we can not only head off future impacts and protect public health, but drive toward utilizing clean energy sources.”
n Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District, pledged to review the plan but expressed concerns about the impacts on businesses and energy prices.
“While I appreciate concerns about our state’s great outdoors, I’m worried the proposal the president has put forward is far too overreaching and harmful to Maine’s hardworking businesses and employees,” Poliquin said in a written statement. “Over-regulation and poor government policies have led to higher energy prices for families in Maine and increased risk to our national security.”
n Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, called the release of the first-ever national carbon standards “significant” but said she wants to hear feedback from Maine regulators.
“I am encouraged to learn that the emissions targets for Maine will not be as stringent as was originally proposed, in recognition of the fact that Maine has already made substantial progress in reducing carbon emissions, increasing energy efficiency, spurring the adoption of clean energy technologies, and improving air quality and public health, including through the state’s participation in … RGGI,” Collins said in a written statement.
n Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent, called the rules “an important step forward” in fighting climate change, protecting public health and transitioning to renewable energy sources.
“While the plan is extensive and I have yet to review all of the details,” King said in a written statement, “I am encouraged that it sets concrete clean air goals and empowers states to tailor their own paths to achieve emissions reduction benchmarks, rather than simply handing down a set of Washington-devised blanket regulations that will only make it more difficult to meet the distinct needs of individual states.”