WASHINGTON — Aiming to jolt the rest of the world to action, President Barack Obama moved ahead Sunday with even tougher greenhouse gas cuts on American power plants, setting up a certain confrontation in the courts with energy producers and Republican-led states.
In finalizing the unprecedented pollution controls, Obama was installing the core of his ambitious and controversial plan to drastically reduce overall U.S. emissions, as he works to secure a legacy on fighting global warming. Yet it will be up to Obama's successor to implement his plan, amid steep Republican opposition that has reverberated from Capitol Hill to the 2016 presidential campaign trail.
"Climate change is not a problem for another generation," Obama said. "Not anymore."
Opponents planned to sue immediately, and to ask the courts to put the rule on hold while legal challenges play out. Many states have threatened not to comply.
Last year, the Obama administration proposed the first greenhouse gas limits on existing power plants in U.S. history, triggering a yearlong review and 4 million public comments to the Environmental Protection Agency. In a video posted to Facebook, Obama said he would announce the final rule at a White House event on Monday, calling it the biggest step the U.S. has ever taken on climate change.
The final version imposes stricter carbon dioxide limits on states than was previously expected: a 32 percent cut by 2030, compared to 2005 levels, senior administration officials said. Obama's proposed version last year called only for a 30 percent cut.
Energy industry advocates said the revision makes Obama's mandate even more burdensome and impossible to meet. But environmental groups and Democrats said they would push back — including Hillary Rodham Clinton, who used the occasion to criticize her GOP opponents in the presidential race for failing to offer a credible alternative.
"It's a good plan, and as president, I'd defend it," Clinton said.
Another key change to the initial proposal marks a major shift for Obama on natural gas, which the president has championed as a "bridge fuel" whose growing use can help the U.S. wean itself off dirtier coal power while ramping up renewable energy capacity. The final version aims to keep the share of natural gas in the nation's power mix at current levels.
Under the final rule, states will also have an additional two years — until 2022 — to comply, yielding to complaints that the original deadline was too soon. They'll also have an additional year to submit their implementation plans to Washington, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Obama has yet to publicly announce the details.
In an attempt to encourage states to take action before 2022, the federal government plans to offer credits to states that boost renewable sources like wind and solar in 2020 and 2021.
"The move toward a world safe from climate change is beginning in earnest," said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund.
Scott Segal, a lobbyist with the firm Bracewell and Giuliani who represents utility companies, said the final version fails to address "fundamental legal flaws" in the proposal and concerns about grid reliability. He said 20 to 30 states are on track to join industry groups in challenging the rule in court as soon as it's formally finalized. The Obama administration has a mixed track record in fending off legal challenges to its climate rules.
Power plants account for roughly one-third of all U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases blamed for global warming. Obama's rule assigns customized targets to each state, then leaves it up to the state to determine how to meet them.
The Obama administration previously predicted the emissions limits will cost up to $8.8 billion annually by 2030. The actual price won't be clear until states decide how they'll reach their targets.
By clamping down on emissions, Obama is also working to increase his leverage and credibility with other nations whose commitments he's seeking for a global climate treaty to be finalized later this year in Paris. As its contribution to that treaty, the U.S. has pledged to cut overall emissions 26 percent to 28 percent by 2025, compared to 2005.
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