In a move likely to renew debate over administration "end runs" around Congress, President Obama is preparing regulations to limit carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants, the New York Times reported Thursday. The administration has already taken steps to limit "greenhouse gas" emissions from newly built power plants, the paper noted, but imposing those limits on plants already built and operating will be far more expensive.
Legislation to limit the emissions has been stalled in Congress, but Heather Zichal, White House coordinator for energy and climate change, said the renewable power and energy efficiency requirements under consideration by the administration will not require legislative approval or congressional funding. The regulations would be promulgated by the Environmental Protection Agency, an administrative body created by executive order of President Nixon in 1970 and ratified by Congress later that year.
"The E.P.A. has been working very hard on rules that focus specifically on greenhouse gases from the coal sector," Zichal told the Times. "They're doing a lot of important work in that space."
Apart from the constitutional issue regarding the separation of legislative and executive powers, Republicans have criticized Obama's policy on climate change and the existing EPA regulations as obstacles to economic recovery. Even some Democrats who are "hawkish about climate action," the Times noted, fear that new standards on power plants might come at the cost of higher energy prices and fewer jobs, particularly in the industrial Midwest, a region dependent on relatively inexpensive energy from coal. The new regulations are also likely to spark protests from coal-producing states such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
In a unanimous 2007 Supreme Court decision, the justices ruled in Environmental Defense v. Duke Energy Corp that the EPA has the power to impose emission standards under the broad authority granted the agency by Congress in the Clean Air Act. But when the executive branch moves unilaterally to impose restrictions that Congress has refused to pass, howls of protest are often heard on Capitol Hill, as happened when the EPA came out with "cap and trade" regulations in 2011.
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Photo of coal-fired Big Bend Power Station near Apollo Beach, Florida