A week before major UN talks on climate change, EPA extends comment period for rule to cut carbon pollution from plants
Barack Obama applied the brakes to the most critical component of his climate change plan on Tuesday, slowing the process of setting new rules cutting carbon pollution from power plants, and casting a shadow over a landmark United Nations’ summit on global warming.
The proposed power plant rules were meant to be the signature environmental accomplishment of Obama’s second term.
The threat of a delay in their implementation comes just one week before a heavily anticipated UN summit where officials had been looking to Obama to show leadership on climate change.
In a conference call with reporters, the Environmental Protection Agency said it was extending the public comment period on the power plant rules for an additional 45 days, until 1 December.
The delay follows heavy lobby by Republicans and industry lobby groups to delay the rule – or withdraw it outright. Fifteen governors had called on Obama and the EPA to withdraw the proposed regulations, which would cut carbon pollution from existing power plants.
Some electricity companies had argued that the rules were extraordinarily complex, clocking in at about 1,600 pages, and they needed extra time to study the full implications.
But a delay puts the EPA on an even tighter deadline to finalise the rule before Obama leaves office in 2016. Even before Tuesday’s extension, the initial comment period for the new EPA rule was already longer than the norm.
The EPA’s acting assistant administrator, Janet McCabe, insisted that extending the comment period would not put the rule in jeopardy. “We will have plenty of time,” she said.
McCabe also brushed aside suggestions that the delay would send the wrong message to leaders arriving for the UN climate summit in New York next week.
UN officials called the leaders’ meeting – the first in five years – to help build momentum for efforts to seal a global climate change deal by the end of 2015.
Some officials had said the US power plant rules could help get the other big emitters, notably China and India, to cut their own emissions.
The EPA official said the snag in the EPA rules would have no effect on the summit. “The message it sends is that we want the best rule possible,” McCabe said. “I think it is clear from that action that have been taking all along at the EPA that we are fully committed to moving this rule through and getting it finalised.”
The proposed rule, announced in June, would cut carbon pollution from the country’s power plants by an average of 30% over 2005 levels.
Some of those reductions could be achieved by switching to natural gas, but the new rules would have caused the shutdown of many coal plants.
The coal industry, some utility companies, and Republicans in Congress have accused Obama and the EPA of waging war on coal with new rules.
A number of campaigners said they hoped the delay would give the EPA time to wear down industry opposition to the rules.
However, a leading industry lobby group, Americans for Clean Coal Electricity, remained unmoved by the promise of extra time to review the proposed rule.
“The fact remains that the agency’s proposed regulations are among the costliest our country has ever seen,” the lobby group said. “Considering how fundamentally flawed these regulations are, EPA could save all involved a lot of time, money and economic hardship if it just withdrew its proposal altogether.”
The threatened delay in the power plant rules also overshadowed a key environmental initiative at the White House on Tuesday to phase out production and use of a powerful greenhouse gas used in refrigerators and air conditioners by 2020.
The White House, noting the UN summit, said the measure would help remove one of the biggest threats to the climate in the short-term.
The measures announced on Tuesday follow on from a series of deals to reduce hydroflourocarbons (HFCs) with China and the G7,
HFCs are 10,000 times stronger than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.
“Unless we act now, US HFC emissions are expected to nearly double by 2020 and triple by 2030,” the White House said in a statement.
Under the initiative, about two dozen chemical and other companies, including Dupont, Honeywell and Coca Cola, agreed to phase out or eliminate the use of HFCs throughout the production chain.
Government contractors also said they would cut down on the use of HFCs.
A number of the companies at the White House on Tuesday had already begun to phase out their use, in response to European Union measures and in anticipation of an eventual ban on some types of coolants.
But Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development,said the initiative on HFCs was still a move in the right direction. “The White House has managed to cajole industry into bolder commitments phasing out higher HFCs and greater energy efficiency refrigerators and supermarket chillers that make our food cold,” he said. “This is what the president can do when Congress wil not act. It is a big step.”