N.C. to fight Obama climate change plan that cuts carbon emissions

Duke Energy's Marshall coal-fired power plant on Lake Norman.
Duke Energy's Marshall coal-fired power plant on Lake Norman. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

The Obama administration on Monday issued the first limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants in a major climate change initiative that North Carolina might try to ignore.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s rule would lower U.S. carbon emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Reductions would have to start in 2022.

Environmentalists hailed the move as historic climate action as Republicans predicted it will kill jobs and raise electric rates. Lawsuits over it are expected to land before the Supreme Court.

The rule alters the proposal announced last year, increasing the initial reduction goal of 30 percent but giving states two years longer to start complying.

It also sets lower targets for North Carolina: a 36 percent reduction in emission rates compared with the 40 percent proposed last year. The plan also lets the fourth-largest solar state count renewable energy toward the goal.

But resistance to the plan is hardening in Raleigh. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources says the EPA misinterpreted the federal Clean Air Act. The state will file a legal challenge.

“Not only will these new federal rules raise electricity rates,” Gov. Pat McCrory said in a statement, “they have the potential to jeopardize the success we’ve made in making North Carolina’s air the cleanest it’s been since we began tracking air quality back in the 1970s.”

McCrory said the state is already on track to cut carbon emissions 30 percent by 2030 without federal intrusion.

States are supposed to file compliance plans by September 2016, although they can get two-year extensions. A federal plan will serve as a backstop for states that don’t craft their own plans.

The North Carolina Senate will take up a measure Tuesday that prohibits the state from filing a compliance plan until legal challenges are resolved.

“One thing the legislation could do is to take away the choices for how North Carolina can devise a cost-effective plan from DENR and put it with the EPA,” said Jonas Monast of Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

The state’s renewable-energy standard, which made North Carolina a major solar player, is also under attack by Republican legislation to freeze it at current targets. A freeze that slows growth of the industry would make it harder for the state to reach the EPA’s target, Monast said.

DENR has argued that the best legal, and potentially least expensive, strategy is to focus on emissions solely from power plants.

That could backfire, former DENR official Robin Smith says, potentially making it harder for the state to comply and raising costs for utilities and customers.

“A state with significant advantages in renewable energy, energy efficiency and already on the road to transitioning power plants from coal to natural gas seems to have settled on a policy that throws those advantages away,” Smith wrote in her environmental law blog.

North Carolina’s 36 percent emissions rate cut is in the middle of the range EPA set for the states.

EPA said the projections “show North Carolina and its power plants will need to continue to work to reduce (carbon) emissions and take additional action to reach its goal in 2030.”

Critics predict dire consequences from the rule.

“In President Obama’s world, the American people are apparently asking for fewer jobs, higher utility bills and even more federal bureaucracy,” U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, a Charlotte Republican, said in a statement. “Regulation is necessary, but President Obama is swinging the pendulum too far, seeking to please his political supporters at the expense of hardworking American families.”

EPA predicts climate and health benefits of the rule of $34 billion to $54 billion a year by 2030, compared with $8.4 billion in annual costs. Electric bills will drop by $7 a month by 2030 because of increased energy efficiency, it says.

Fossil-fueled power plants release about one-third of the nation’s greenhouse gases, which are linked to climate change. Last year was the warmest on record, EPA says, and 14 of the warmest 15 years came this century.

Utility emissions of carbon dioxide have already dropped 15 percent between 2005 and 2013 as the recession stalled electricity demand and utilities moved to cleaner-burning natural gas fuel.

Duke Energy, the nation’s largest electric utility, released 135 million tons of carbon in the U.S. last year despite a 22 percent reduction since 2005.

“This ambitious plan seeks to build on the substantial progress Duke Energy and other utilities have made to reduce our environmental footprint,” chief executive Lynn Good said in a statement. “As we continue to move to a lower carbon future, we will also continue to work constructively with states to identify customer solutions that preserve the reliability and affordability that our communities expect.”

Jim Morrill contributed.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

Climate change in the Southeast

Average annual temperature in the Southeast over the past century included warm conditions during the 1930s and 1940s followed by a cool period in the 1960s and 1970s, says the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

Since 1970, temperatures have risen an average of 2 degrees. An increasing number of days reached 95 degrees or hotter and nights above 75 degrees. The number of extremely cold days dropped.

Temperature increases of 4 degrees to 8 degrees are expected by 2100. Precipitation estimates are harder to measure, with many models showing little overall change.

Parts of the Southeast, including North Carolina’s Outer Banks, are vulnerable to sea-level rise. Bruce Henderson