SALT LAKE CITY — President Obama unveiled the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan on Monday afternoon amid cries it will ruin the country's energy economy and praise that it is the most signficant step toward reducing climate-changing carbon pollution.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the plan will cause major reductions in pollutants that cause health-damaging soot and smog, ultimately leading to 3,600 fewer premature deaths and 90,000 fewer asthma attacks in children by 2030.
The plan puts the first-ever limits on carbon pollution from power plants, requiring an overall reduction of 32 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. Under the plan, states have individual reductions set by the EPA based on their current emissions "profile," and have a more flexible timeline to implement their plans, according to the new rule.
McCarthy said states will also have the ability to cut carbon emissions in ways that make sense for individual communities and power generators, or they can choose to immediately adopt an EPA-crafted rule that guarantees compliance with the new standards.
The Clean Power Plan is huge in its scope and broad in its implications, generating analysis from all corners of the debate in more than two years since Obama announced the intent to regulate power plants.
Multiple organizations — from environmental groups and public policy think tanks to industry associations and energy-efficiency advocates — have been unfurling an exhaustive array of opinions and assessments that either hail its progressive reforms or bemoan its upheaval of the American energy grid and economy.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, swiftly denounced the plan and said he would fight it at every turn.
“The Obama administration has issued a swarm of burdensome regulations, but the so-called Clean Power Plan is one of the worst,” Hatch said. “This rule is clearly inconsistent with both the limits on the EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act and the Constitution’s separation of powers and protections of state sovereignty.
"Moreover, according to independent analysts, this rule could destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs and impose significantly higher utility bills on families and businesses while producing no meaningful climate benefits according to the EPA’s own model," Hatch said.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert is among those state leaders who urged the plan be abandoned for fear of its impact on energy prices, jobs, its unworkability and its reach that he says goes beyond the scope of the EPA's purview.
"Such a dramatic expansion of Clean Air Act authority warrants clear direction and clear legal authorization from Congress, which has not yet been granted," Herbert wrote in a letter to the regulatory agency.
Alan Matheson, Herbert's environmental chief, had cautious reaction to the plan Monday, saying it was too early to tell what ramifications it will have on Utah until authorities get a chance to dive into specifics.
"Regulation of this nature and scope has the potential to impact Utah's energy industry and economy," Matheson said. "(The) EPA sought comment on over 200 substantive issues addressed in the original proposed rule, and the final language could be quite different in terms of how it could affect Utah. Given its length and complexity, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality and the state of Utah will conduct a thorough review of the final rule before determining next steps."
For Utah, the plan calls for reductions the EPA describes as midrange. At the low end, states' reductions fall at 771 pounds of emissions per megawatt hour of power generation to a high of 1,305 pounds by 2030. Utah is at 1,179 pounds per megawatt hour of power produced — or a 37 percent reduction from baseline numbers.
The reductions are less if Utah targets shaving emissions based on sheer volume and does not factor in the in-state power generation component. For that option, the reduction would be 23 percent by 2030.
States get an extra two years to come up with a compliance plan under the final rule, and they can also count in-state generation of renewables and power savings that are accomplished through energy-efficiency programs.
Howard Geller, executive director of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, said he believes those components of the Clean Power Plan help make it achievable for Utah.
"I think Utah can achieve its requirements with net economic benefits, not net costs, it if is smart about how it complies with the standards," Geller said.
Utah already has in-state generation of renewable energy with the Milford wind farm, and multiple solar plants are slated to power up well in advance of the 2030 deadline, he added.
Energy-efficiency programs and improvements to building codes can also help get the state to the emissions reduction goal, Geller said.
"The average household is not going to have to deal with this. They will not know it exists," he said. "They will not know there are emission standards on sulfur dioxide or nitrous oxides. The utility companies will figure out what they need to do to comply, and as they figure it out, some costs may be added to rates."
Other groups insist that critics are overblowing the effects on states such as Utah.
“Industry and their allies love to cry wolf every time a new program to protect health and the environment is unveiled,” said HEAL Utah Executive Director Matt Pacenza. “Those claims are always unfounded. And they will be again today. This modest shift away from coal power toward renewables and efficiency will offer Utah benefits far beyond its costs.”
The Sierra Club, which seeks to end the use of coal for power generation, called the plan the single most significant action any U.S. president has taken to tackle the most serious health issue facing families: the climate crisis.
"With 200 coal plants announced to retire and clean energy growing at record levels, the United States is now taking a huge next step to curb dangerous carbon pollution," said Michael Brune, Sierra Club executive director. "Today is a victory for every American who wants clean air to breathe, and for the millions of activists and concerned citizens who organized to make sure this day would finally come."
According to a Utah-specific fact sheet released by the White House, Utah power plants emitted 36 million metric tons of carbon pollution, the equivalent of more than 7.5 million cars. Utah has been able to reduce its power sector carbon pollution by 9 percent since 2008, a success the Obama administration said will be built on with the Clean Power Plan.
Groups opposed to the new regulations say they cater to doomsday predictions made by environmentalists and other supporters whose use of fear-mongering tactics ignore how much the environment has improved over the decades.
The Environmental Policy Alliance said even as fossil fuel use has increased, air pollution has been cut in half, and U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are at their lowest levels in 20 years.
"The crux of modern-day environmentalism is that things are getting worse. Today we hear alarmist claims that without elimination of fossil fuels, we’re facing mass extinction,” said Will Coggin, director of research at the Environmental Policy Alliance. “Not only have environmentalists been wrong for decades, but the environment has improved significantly.”
A dozen coal-dependent states are among opponents that have filed lawsuits against the EPA to kill the plan, with critics who say it will cost more than $73 billion a year.