U.S. May Need Stronger Power Plant Rule, New Methane Regulation to Meet Pledge

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By Dean Scott

Nov. 12 — The U.S. would need to regulate methane from the oil and gas sector and wring more greenhouse gas emissions cuts from its plan to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants to meet President Barack Obama's new pledge to cut U.S. emission by at least 26 percent by 2025, analysts told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 12.

The Environmental Protection Agency is currently reviewing whether to regulate methane emissions from oil and gas drilling and plans to announce its approach this fall.

The cuts the EPA plans to get from its power plant limits—which, along with already strengthened vehicle efficiency standards was already considered critical to meeting the previous U.S. pledge to cut its emissions 17 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels—may also need to be reassessed, according to Kevin Kennedy, director of the World Resources Institute's U.S. Climate Initiative.

“When we look at the power sector, we do think there are more reductions available” from it, particularly if the EPA gives more weight to what WRI sees as declining costs of renewable energy technology, low-cost gains in energy efficiency and more closures of old coal-fired power plants, according to Kennedy.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told reporters Nov. 12 that the more ambitious U.S. pledge to cut emissions 26 percent to 28 percent by 2025 based on 2005 levels is “ambitious but achievable,” echoing a phrase Obama used a day earlier in announcing the goal. McCarthy hinted that methane emissions, which are not regulated in the oil and gas sector, might be one area where the new rules could be “teed up.”

The EPA's approach could include updated emissions control requirements for oil and natural gas wells, McCarthy said Sept. 2. The EPA was directed to consider regulating methane under a White House methane strategy released in March. It directed EPA, if it pursues a regulatory approach, to finalize those rules by March 2016.

All ‘Available Tools’ Reviewed

Obama settled on the 2025 target only after “a thorough interagency review of the available tools” at each federal agency, including those that could be “brought to fruition quickly enough” to ensure the U.S. could meet the 2025 reductions, McCarthy said.

Dallas Burtraw, a senior fellow with Resources for the Future, said it appears “possible to achieve the [U.S.] stated goal for 2025 without new authority,” such as congressional passage of sweeping climate and energy legislation.

“[B]ut it will require full use of existing authorities under the Clean Air Act and elsewhere across federal agencies,” Burtraw said, including additional federal regulatory action beyond the EPA's power plant rules, as well as stronger state regulation of emissions.

Obama announced the new 26 percent to 28 percent pledge in a joint announcement Nov. 11 with China President Xi Jinping. Xi pledged that China's emissions would peak by 2030, and possibly earlier, after which they would begin to decline.

Still Significant Cut

The U.S. pledge is still more modest than what has been put forth by the European Union, which agreed in October to cut its emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

A direct comparison is made difficult because of differing baselines; the EU cuts are from 1990, while the U.S. cuts would come from 2005 levels. But Kennedy said Obama's latest pledge amounts to a 13 percent to 16 percent cut from a 1990 baseline used by the EU.

Obama administration officials including John Podesta, the senior adviser at the White House on climate issues, touted the U.S. pledge as an ambitious one.

“This target keeps us on track to reduce our carbon pollution on the order of 80 percent by 2050, and means the U.S. is doing our part to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius,” Podesta said in an e-mailed statement Nov. 12.

Developed and developing nations alike have pledged in the climate negotiations to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels to avert catastrophic climate change.

Podesta said the new U.S. target “will roughly double the pace of our carbon pollution reduction” to a 2.3 percent to 2.8 percent annual reduction in U.S. emissions from 2020 to 2025. The previous pledge to reduce emissions 17 percent by 2020, by contrast, requires a more modest 1.2 percent emissions cut per year from 2005 to 2020, he said.

The fact that three of the world's largest emitters have put forth pledges more than a year before a United Nations climate agreement is to be finalized in Paris is expected to breathe new life into the talks. Some environmental groups noted that Obama's pledge did not address other key issues in the negotiations, including what aid the U.S. could provide to help developing nations adapt to climate impacts.

“The announcement is silent on the U.S. commitment to adaptation, technology transfer and climate finance in regards to the rest of the world,” according to a statement from Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth U.S.

With assistance from Andrea Vittorio in Washington

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at dscott@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com