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Why Obama is doubling down on new climate change plan (+video)

President Obama's ambitious new climate rules reflect an administration emboldened by recent victories on both domestic and global issues.

Last June, the Obama administration proposed the most ambitious climate regulations the country has ever seen. Since then, the draft version of the so-called Clean Power Plan has faced threats from the courts, Congress, and state and local leaders who say it violates states rights and threatens to destabilize the US electrical grid. A chorus of lawmakers, industry groups, and officials have called on the administration to curtail or abandon the proposed carbon limits on US power plants.  

But the Obama administration isn't budging. On Monday, it is unveiling a finalized version of the Clean Power Plan that is even more aggressive than first proposed.

The doubling down on climate reflects an administration emboldened by recent high-profile victories on other key issues. Having solidified significant gains on health care, gay rights, Iran nuclear talks, and relations with Cuba, President Obama appears determined to do the same for another key item of his agenda: climate change.

It's also part of a concerted effort to demonstrate that the world's largest economy and, after China, the second-largest carbon emitter, is serious about decarbonizing its energy supply. In just three short months, diplomats will convene in Paris talks for what is widely seen as a last-ditch effort to reach a substantive global climate deal. US officials and others from around the globe have repeatedly said a strong showing from the US is a prerequisite for action from other major emitters and contributions from the developing world.  

"Power plants are the single biggest source of the harmful carbon pollution that contributes to climate change," Mr. Obama said in a video posted to Facebook over the weekend. "But until now, there have been no federal limits to the amount of that pollution those plants can dump into the air."

The original rules required a 30 percent cut in power sector emissions from 2005 levels by 2030. The final rules tack on an extra 2 percent to that goal. Last year's proposal leaned heavily on cleaner burning natural gas to serve as a bridge fuel to zero-carbon sources like solar and wind power. The final Clean Power Plan calls for a larger share of renewable energy than before, potentially diminishing the role natural gas will play in the country's ongoing transition to cleaner energy. 

In unveiling the final rules, the Environmental Protection Agency did offer a bit of a reprieve on deadlines. Instead of submitting their plans to cut emissions by 2017, states now have an extra year to chart a course toward decarbonization. Previously, states had to achieve those goals by 2020. The new rules give states until 2022. 

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Environmentalists largely praised the finalized rule as a historic step toward reining in greenhouse gas emissions, which trap heat in the atmosphere and warm the planet.

"The Clean Power Plan is an opportunity for workers, entrepreneurs, and businesses to prosper as we go above and beyond the goals set by this plan," Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said in a statement. "It is a step towards improving the quality of life for low income neighborhoods and communities of color, which have disproportionately borne the brunt of power plant pollution for decades."

If everything goes according to plan, the portion of US electricity generated by renewable sources will rise from 11 percent today to 28 percent by 2030, according to EPA. The Clean Power Plan will also curb traditional pollutants associated with carbon-heavy fuel sources like coal and oil. EPA estimates the plan will help avoid up to 3,600 premature deaths, result in 90,000 fewer asthma attacks in children, and prevent 300,000 missed work and school days.   

Those climate and public health benefits will be worth between $34 billion and $54 billion per year in 2030, according to EPA, which more than compensates for the projected $8.4 billion annual costs by 2030. And while utility bills may rise in the near term, EPA expects Americans to save nearly $85 on their energy bill in 2030 due to increased efficiency measures and renewable sources that have no fuel costs.

"Our country’s clean energy transition is happening faster than anyone anticipated—even as of last year when we proposed this rule," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy wrote in a blog post. "The accelerating trend toward clean power, and the growing success of energy efficiency efforts, mean carbon emissions are already going down, and the pace is picking up."

Republicans, industry groups, business associations, and some states are largely opposed to the plan. They say the plan will end up costing Americans much more than the EPA estimates by shuttering relatively inexpensive coal plants prematurely. They worry about maintaining a demand-supply balance in a grid that is increasingly reliant on solar and wind patterns to generate electricity.

"EPA’s final carbon rule reveals what we’ve said for months – this agency is pursuing an illegal plan that will drive up electricity costs and put people out of work,” Mike Duncan, president and chief executive of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said in a statement. “This rule fails across the board, but most troubling is that it fails the millions of families and businesses who rely on affordable electricity to help them keep food on the table and the lights on.”

Earlier this year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky penned an open letter to governors asking them to refuse to comply with the new rule. Some, like Indiana's Governor Mike Pence, have answered that call, while others are joining in with industry groups' plans to sue the administration over the rules.

The Edison Electric Institute, which represents the nation's investor-owned utility companies, said it was still reviewing the finalized rules. But, in a statement, the group depicted the new rules in a light both critics and champions can agree with:

"Without a doubt, EPA’s final Clean Power Plan ... will be the most comprehensive, far-reaching regulation ever promulgated by the federal government to impact the electric power sector." 

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