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Can Republicans block Obama’s clean energy plans?

Now in control of Congress, the GOP has more leverage to take on President Obama's climate and energy policies. This week was a taste of what's to come.

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    This coal power plant in Billings, Mont. will shut down in August, 2015, owner PPL Montana said last month. Closures across the country have left the coal industry reeling, and Republicans are pushing back against Obama's clean energy plans in part because of their impact on the country's No. 1 source of electricity.
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President Obama’s push for a cleaner, leaner energy sector has had a rough week.

On Tuesday, the Senate’s top Republican advised states not to comply with new power plant rules aimed at cutting carbon emissions. At a hearing a day later, Republican climate change skeptics were grilling Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, questioning the science of global warming, and criticizing the cost of the proposed carbon rules. Underlying the week was an attempt – albeit unsuccessful – to override Mr. Obama’s veto of a bill to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

The Keystone saga and a string of testy energy hearings this week signal that the newly Republican-led Congress is eager to make a splash in US energy policy. Over the past six years, the Obama administration has generally favored renewables and emissions reductions. Now, Republicans and some Democrats are looking to place the booming oil and gas sector at the center of the country’s energy future.

For Obama, the stakes are high. Efforts to block climate rules could stymie chances of an international deal to cap climate-altering emissions and rein in global warming. Obama’s rules aim to demonstrate US leadership ahead of December’s international climate talks in Paris, in hopes that a strong US commitment will prod other countries to follow suit.

“The purpose is for Obama to stand up in Paris and say, ‘We’ve done ours,’” says Deborah Gordon, director of the energy and climate program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank.

Target No. 1 for Republicans is Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which would slash US power plant emissions 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Analysts see it as the most ambitious of the administration’s climate and energy policies – Obamacare, but for the environment. On Wednesday, it faced fierce opposition from Sen. Jim Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma, who led the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s hearing on EPA’s 2016 budget. Just last week, Mr. Inhofe made news by bringing a snowball to the Senate floor last week in an attempt to disprove climate change.

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“I urge the states to consider what is in their best interest as they work through next steps. The Clean Power Plan is a deeply flawed proposal,” Mr. Inhofe said in a statement released to the Monitor Thursday, adding that the plan is "all pain with no gain, and states should not be forced into implementing an initiative that causes extreme harm to its citizens.”

EPA’s budget includes $3.5 million for bringing on 20 lawyers to defend the rules in court and to assist states in complying – money McCarthy defended in the face of Republican criticism.

“It is very clear that carbon pollution is a danger to public health and welfare, and that efforts need to be underway to make progress,” McCarthy said Wednesday. “[The Clean Power Plan] has already changed the international dynamic, because climate change cannot be addressed without significant international efforts. We’re going to do our part, and that’s what this does.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky has said he will try to overturn the climate rules once they’re finalized this summer. Mr. McConnell says the rules will kill coal jobs and raise electricity costs.

Coal accounts for 40 percent of US electricity, as coal industry groups point out, and Obama’s emissions cuts would require replacing much of the nation’s coal-fired power with cleaner sources like natural gas, hydropower, nuclear, solar, and wind. That switch could raise electricity prices, the coal industry says. Other analysts point to a drop in natural gas prices as the primary threat to coal’s future in America. In 2007, US coal-fired electricity generation was more than double that from natural gas, according to the International Energy Agency. By the first half of 2012, the ratio of coal to gas had dropped to just 1.16.  

Environmentalists tout ever-expanding solar and wind power as proof that switching to cleaner fuels for electricity generation is possible, and indeed happening.

“There is more renewable energy flowing through the power grid today than ever before. At times wind has supplied more than 60 percent of the electricity on some utility systems without reliability problems,” John Moore, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, wrote in testimony for a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission conference last month. “Solar power now routinely contributes 10 to 15 percent of the midday electricity demand in California.”

Caught squarely between industry and environmentalists is Obama’s EPA, led by McCarthy. The agency is trying to achieve the president’s lofty emissions-cutting climate goals without overstepping its authority or angering Republican members of Congress, many of whom say EPA is already on shaky legal footing.

McConnell argued as much in an op-ed published in the Lexington Herald-Leader Tuesday.

“Don't be complicit in the administration's attack on the middle class. Think twice before submitting a state plan,” McConnell advised state officials across the US. “Refusing to go along at this time with such an extreme proposed regulation would give the courts time to figure out if it is even legal, and it would give Congress more time to fight back. We're devising strategies now to do just that.”

EPA’s Clean Power Plan requires each state to submit its roadmap for cutting emissions, with emissions reduction requirements that vary by state. Washington state, which relies heavily on hydropower and has only one coal plant, is expected to cut emissions about 72 percent – and state officials aren’t worried about meeting the goal. North Dakota, which relies primarily on coal, would only have to cut emissions about 10 percent, according to EPA’s draft rule. Final rules are expected mid-summer.

Conservative state utility regulators say the Clean Power Plan could harm grid reliability, particularly if states have to phase out dirtier-burning coal quickly to meet EPA’s new rules. Many states and utilities are challenging the plan in court, though the Supreme Court has already ruled that EPA has the authority to regulate carbon emissions from power plants, factories, and refineries.

“For a rule like this there is no way that we are not going to be challenged,” McCarthy said of court challenges to the rules in an interview with The Hill. “We think we have appropriately used 111-D [of the Clean Air Act] for this sector and that the rule will be not just be legally defensive, it’s going to be solid.”

Either way, EPA, states, and utilities are preparing for the Clean Power Plan to be implemented.

“The electric utility industry has a strong track record when it comes to reducing emissions associated with electric generation,” Gerry Anderson, Chairman and CEO of DTE Energy, a Detroit-based natural gas and electric utility company, said in a late February statement. “We are committed to finding a workable path to achieving the Plan’s proposed reductions, while also ensuring the continued reliable, affordable delivery of electricity.”

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