Emissions spew out of a large stack at the coal-fired Morgantown Generating Station in Newburg, Maryland
Emissions spew out of a large stack at the coal-fired Morgantown Generating Station in Newburg, Maryland © Getty

President Barack Obama’s plan to cut power plants’ carbon dioxide emissions places a widely differing burden on different states, opening the proposals to objections from those that feel they are being treated unfairly.

Figures published by the Environmental Protection Agency, which is drawing up the new rules, show that the targets for 2030 range from a 72 per cent reduction in measured emissions rates to a cut of just 11 per cent.

The EPA has said its “flexible” approach, setting targets for the states based on their individual circumstances and allowing them to choose how to achieve those goals, is at the heart of its plan for cutting emissions from US power plants by 30 per cent over 2005-30.

However, such an approach could leave it open to legal challenges.

Jacob Hollinger, a former EPA lawyer who is now a partner at McDermott, Will & Emery, says he was “surprised” by the differences in the demands made of different states.

“The implications aren’t totally developed yet, and that is something people should be scrutinising very carefully,” he said.

The objectives set for states are expressed as emissions rates: the weight of carbon dioxide that a state’s existing power plants are allowed to emit for every megawatt hour of electricity that they generate, although the precise numbers are calculated according to a complex formula.

The targets for 2030 range from just 215lbs per MWh for Washington state, to 1,783lbs per MWh for North Dakota: more than eight times as much.

The idea is to avoid imposing an excessive burden on states that are heavily dependent on coal power, which emits higher amounts of carbon than most other sources of electricity.

It is not only the targets that vary widely between states: the changes in reported emissions rates that they will be called on to make over 2012-2030 also vary widely.

As well as having the highest emissions rate goal, North Dakota is being called on to make the smallest reduction from 2012 levels: just 11 per cent. Washington has the lowest goal and is being asked to make the steepest reduction, of 72 per cent.

Other states facing the most demanding targets include Arizona, South Carolina, Oregon and New Hampshire, while states with the easiest objectives include Maine, Rhode Island, Hawaii and Iowa.

Some states that are heavily dependent on coal, including Kentucky, Wyoming and West Virginia, also have relatively small proposed reductions of 18-20 per cent.

Moreover, those reported emissions rates may end up having little connection to the actual amounts of carbon dioxide that states emit, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a research company.

It has run calculations based on the EPA’s own integrated planning model for energy which show that some states, including California, Nebraska and Rhode Island, would actually be able to increase the absolute volume of their emissions under the EPA plan, while others such as Louisiana, Arkansas and Idaho may face very steep cuts.

New power plants are not covered by the latest EPA rules; there are separate regulations proposed for new generation capacity that would in effect ban the construction of coal-fired plants, but allow gas plants.

So a state that invests in more new gas-fired plants could end up with higher emissions, even though its measured emissions rate from its existing plants had fallen.

Michael Obeiter of the World Resources Institute, an environmental think-tank, said the differing demands being made on states did not mean that some were being treated unfairly.

“The targets reflect the fact that each state has different circumstances,” he said. “They have different availability of renewable energy resources, potential for energy efficiency improvements, and so on.”

For example, studies by the WRI show that Arkansas has been running its lower-emitting gas plants less than Ohio has, implying that it has greater potential to cut emissions by running them more.

He added that the EPA had been “extremely transparent” in spelling out its methodology for calculating the states’ targets, which was set out in a 29-page “technical support document” published along with the main 645-page rulemaking plan on Monday.

Vicki Arroyo of the Georgetown University Climate Center agreed that the EPA’s plans would have to be studied for some time to understand their full implications.

“All the states will be taking a look to see if they think they’ve been treated unfairly, and whether the goals match their ability and plans to reduce their emissions,” she said.

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