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New Greenhouse Gas Rule Will Benefit Both Climate and Health

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Tomorrow, President Obama is expected to announce a major step in U.S. carbon regulation. Using executive authority, the President will issue a new rule to limit carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants in the United States. This ruling could have many other benefits, including reducing soot, smog, and early-deaths due to repiratory and other illnesses.

According to the President, “[in] just the first year that these standards go into effect, up to 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks will be avoided – and those numbers will go up from there.”

These illnesses are largely caused by particulate matter (PM), a mix of liquid and solid particles that can contain sulfates, nitrates, ammonium, carbon, metals, and an array of allergens. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) these emissions lead to asthma and other respiratory illnesses, lung cancer and cardiopulmonary diseases. Globally, an estimated 800,000 early deaths occur each year as the result of combustion-related emissions (both particulate matter and ozone) – 200,000 of these are in the United States.

While these particles can come from non-human sources (e.g. volcanoes), anthropogenic sources are the major contributors in cities. Particulate matter that is smaller than 10 micros in diameter (PM10) primarily comes from combustion – in car engines (both diesel and gasoline), power plants (coal, heavy oil and biomass), and other industrial activities (for example mining, the manufacturing of cement, and smelting).

The rule itself will target carbon dioxide emissions. Approximately 37% of electricity in the United States is generated using coal-fired power plants. Last year, 38% of carbon dioxide emissions come from the electricity sector, mostly coal-fired power plants that represent 37& of electricity generation in the nation. Under this new rule, emissions from existing coal-fired power plants would be reduced by 20%. The EPA already has rules in place for emissions limits for new power plants.

The new rule will be issued under the 1970 Clean Air Act section 111(d), which allows the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate pollution from existing sources. State regulators can deisgn strategies to either meet or beat the EPA’s recommendations. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon dioxide and other pollutants that contribute to global climate change in 2007. Since this time, an EPA rule-making has been viewed as an executive-branch backstop if the legislative branch was unable to agree on federal standards for carbon dioxide emissions.

Such an agreement was attempted in 2009 with the American Clean Energy and Security Act (H.R. 2454). However, while the bill narrowly passed a vote in the House of Representatives (219 for and 212 against), the bill did not make it through the Senate. If passed, H.R. 2454 would have established a national emissions trading scheme similar to that seen in Europe.

Instead, the EPA will regulate these emissions under the new rule, which will be announced tomorrow.

Photo Credit: Photo of W.A. Parish Power Plant and a coal-filled train © Copyright roy luck and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Melissa C. Lott About the Author: An engineer and researcher who works at the intersection of energy, environment, technology, and policy. Follow on Twitter @mclott.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. rkipling 6:23 pm 06/1/2014

    Ms. Lott,

    Since economics is also one of your areas of expertise, could you share your assessment of the economic impact of this new rule and the rule for new power plants on utility prices? You didn’t address this aspect in your article.

    Link to this
  2. 2. antiGW 6:47 pm 06/1/2014

    An engineer and researcher who works at the intersection of energy, environment, technology, and policy.

    In which city is this intersection?

    Link to this
  3. 3. cobumski 6:48 pm 06/1/2014

    While the conclusions may be intuitively obvious, quantifying the health and climate benefits is merely guesswork. So many variables need to be factored into any analysis. Perhaps adverse effects on energy costs and/or social economic costs in already poor regions more than offset benefits.

    Link to this
  4. 4. CurvyRedHead 8:58 pm 06/1/2014

    If these new regulations on power generation increase costs to the consumer, has any provision been made for the poor? Since the retail cost of electricity is less affordable for them than for the average consumer, these are regressive taxes.

    Link to this
  5. 5. StanleyP 9:05 pm 06/1/2014

    CO2 isn’t pollution its plant food. CO2 has increased in the past 15 years. EPA data shows ocean temperatures have dropped in that time frame. So why exactly are we curtailing CO2 emissions. How many people will die from shutting down power plants. Some cities already have rolling black outs from lack of power. Ice has been melting since the last ice age. It will continue melt. People can back away from the oceans as they rise. Congress passed no law that allows the regulation of CO2. We the people need to start suing. Maybe a few hundred million law suits will stop stupidity in it path. More CO2 maybe exactly what is needed.

    Link to this
  6. 6. JMKubica 9:11 pm 06/1/2014

    CO2 and Particulate Matter – are two completely different critters.

    CO2 is not known to cause illness and cutting CO2 emissions has not been shown to reduce Global Warming, Global Cooling, Climate Change – or – Climate Uncertainty.

    Link to this
  7. 7. sethdiyal 11:06 pm 06/1/2014

    Since Obama’s plan is to simply replace coal with natural gas, there will be no effect on GHG’s. Real science peer reviewed and published in reputable journal tells us that when copious methane leakage from production to delivery is added in, natural gas produces more GHG’s per kwh than coal. Still lots of air pollution killing lots of folks as well but less than coal – nice.

    “Obama said on Saturday that the planned EPA measures would also curb air pollution from burning fossil fuels that is especially damaging for the health of children and the elderly”

    Oddly after Democrat Jimmy Carter 40 years ago decided to do in a million Americans with air pollution joining up with benefactors at Big Coal to shut down US nuclear, Obama is finally acknowledging after Big Oil gave the go ahead that the stacks of corpses he’s been ignoring are a problem. Rather than curing the disease by replacing the coal with nukes, he’s happy with just reducing the death rate with Big Oil’s gas.

    ” “China is going to continue to make efforts because it has to deal with air pollution and energy security anyway,”

    Obama is well paid by Big Oil lobbyists to push gas and its associated wind/solar/ gas backup option while ignoring the 98% of power engineers that tell us nuclear power is the only possible in time solution to a fast approaching climate precipice.

    Every year the easily doable 10 year conversion from fossil to nuclear (France did 80% in the 1980′s) with 40% returns on the necessary investment, is deferred by the likes of Big oil’s Obama, 6 million folks die from fossil air pollution. Obama is the worst sort of warming Denier looking downright evil apparently thinking their deaths and the risk of billions in a fast approaching warming precipice is a reasonable sacrifice in the quest for an at best 50 years in the future world powered by warm sunbeams and cool breezes that Germany jokes about as a goal for its Energiewende.

    For the latest, here’s the world’s foremost climate scientist – physicist James Hansen recently kicking Obama’s backside.

    Google “Renewable Energy, Nuclear Power and Galileo: Do Scientists Have a Duty to Expose Popular Misconceptions?”

    Link to this
  8. 8. TopTier 11:33 pm 06/1/2014

    This same thing is happening all over the EU:

    SPANISH LESSON FOR OBAMA: GREEN ENERGY TRANSITION UNAFFORDABLE, MAY SOON CRASH

    Date: 31/05/14

    Ute Müller, Die Welt

    Lawsuits may force Spain to bring its renewable energy experiment to an end, a green policy fiasco that has gone terribly wrong due to astronomical costs. It’s a powerful lesson for the White House that has often cited the Spanish model as one to emulate.

    Only recently, Spain was widely praised as the champion of wind energy in Europe. What is more, all over the country new solar parks were built and renewable energy had become the main source of energy supply on the Iberian Peninsula. Those days, however, may soon be over. That’s because Spain’s industry ministry intends to drastically cut back on subsidies for “clean energy.” The whole country has to cut back, the industry ministry argues drily, and energy producers have to do too.

    This argument seems irrefutable since the figures that are now assessed by the government are astronomical indeed. The subsidies that are going to flow into green energy projects on the Iberian Peninsula amount to a staggering 200 billion euros. Approximately 56 billion euros have already been paid out. The lion’s share of this sum went into rather generous feed-in tariffs for wind and solar energy which, since 1995, have attracted numerous investors from both home and abroad.

    The remaining 143 billion euros are due to be paid out in the next 20 years for green energy projects that have already been connected to the grid, foremost for solar farms.

    Given these sums, it would appear that industry minister Jose Manuel Soria has come to the conclusion that the only option left is to put his foot down. He now plans to cut green subsidies for the energy sector by about 20 percent, to 7.5 billion euros per annum. The minister, however, has not reckoned with affected green investors who are up in arms and fighting the planned subsidy cuts.

    Moratorium on new solar farms

    This is not the first time that Spain intends to take advantage of solar investors retrospectively. Numerous foreign investment funds, especially from the US, have invested heavily in Spain’s renewable energy in recent years, expanding solar energy production significantly. They were lured by promises by the then socialist industry minister who had agreed a fixed rate of return of 14 percent per annum for solar park investments.

    “The sun can be yours,” huge billboards claimed. Thousands of Spanish investors were keen not to miss this golden opportunity either. As a result, solar power production on the sun-drenched Iberian Peninsula increased from 53 to 313 gigawatt hours (GWh) between 2007 and 2010.

    Surprised by the huge demand, the government of socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero introduced a moratorium for new solar farms, guaranteed feed-in tariff were reduced to 25 years and the premiums were paid only for a certain number of hours of sunshine per year. After a change of government at the end of 2012, the new conservative administration upped the ante and introduced a new electricity tax of 7.5 percent, causing the profits for the solar industry to fall by around 30 percent.

    A good opportunity for nuclear power?

    This week, U.S. energy company Nextera Energy has summoned Spain before the International Centre for Settlement for Investment Disputes (ICSID) to demand redress. The U.S. company regards the new rules as a retroactive change to the original guarantees. Nextera Energy has invested heavily in the Spanish solar power plant Termosol .

    Other large investors, such as a Deutsche Bank investment fund, involved in the Andalusian power plant Andasol, and French bank BNP have asked ICSID, a World Bank organization, for arbitration. Another group of foreign investors issued first lawsuits in 2011, based on the European Energy Charter which promises investment protection and prohibits expropriation.

    If the investors win their case, Spain can expect claims for damages amounting to billions of euros. In such a case, the further expansion of renewable energy in Spain would then come to end end at once. The industry minister is not the only one who is aware of the potential consequences. Two traditional power generators, Endesa and Iberdrola, even see a good chance for new deals with nuclear power. They have requested an extension of the operating license for the Garoña nuclear power plant which had already been taken off the grid. Garoña is now expected to provide electricity until 2031. The investor believe that despite new security investments the nuclear power plant will be profitable. They expect that after the boom and bust of recent years the share of renewable energy will decline.

    Translation GWPF

    Die Welt, 31 May 2014

    Link to this
  9. 9. rkipling 12:06 am 06/2/2014

    I commend the “Plugged In” Blog contributors for allowing a diversity of views in the comments. Diversity in comments seems to have disappeared from articles published by the SciAm Online news desk.

    Link to this
  10. 10. jimmy boy 4:15 am 06/2/2014

    remember this crap Obama has done when you see your power bill shoot up. This crap will hurt the poor too.

    Link to this
  11. 11. jimmy boy 4:25 am 06/2/2014

    GW is a false hood to fool the people of the world in going along with one world Gov., and to redistribute the wealth form rich nation to poor nations. Keep in mind when I was a young person science was saying that due to coal fires we were going in to an ice age.

    Link to this
  12. 12. TopTier 8:22 am 06/2/2014

    NASA scientists question leadership over unsettled science:

    The Honorable Charles Bolden, Jr.
    NASA Administrator
    NASA Headquarters
    Washington, D.C. 20546-0001

    Dear Charlie,

    We, the undersigned, respectfully request that NASA and the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) refrain from including unproven remarks in public releases and websites. We believe the claims by NASA and GISS, that man-made carbon dioxide is having a catastrophic impact on global climate change are not substantiated, especially when considering thousands of years of empirical data. With hundreds of well-known climate scientists and tens of thousands of other scientists publicly declaring their disbelief in the catastrophic forecasts, coming particularly from the GISS leadership, it is clear that the science is NOT settled.

    The unbridled advocacy of CO2 being the major cause of climate change is unbecoming of NASA’s history of making an objective assessment of all available scientific data prior to making decisions or public statements.

    Attached signatures) CC: Mr. John Grunsfeld, #$%$ociate Administrator for Science CC: #$%$ Mr. Chris Scolese, Director, Goddard Space Flight Center Ref: Letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, dated 3-26-12, regarding a request for NASA to refrain from making unsubstantiated claims that human produced CO2 is having a catastrophic impact on climate change. 1. /s/ Jack Barneburg, Jack – JSC, Space Shuttle Structures, Engineering Directorate, 34 years 2. /s/ Larry Bell – JSC, Mgr. Crew Systems Div., Engineering Directorate, 32 years 3. /s/

    See more at: http://notrickszone.com/2012/0...

    Link to this
  13. 13. floydhowardjr 8:31 am 06/2/2014

    All democrats and supporters here and abroad, are trying to flood the media with hysterical climate change & global warming alarms to take the heat off Dem candidates in the November 2014 and 2016 elections due to the train wreck of Obamacare! They shout, scream, cry, make outlandish claims and won’t stop till after the elections! Poor Democrats! The tsunami cometh!

    Link to this
  14. 14. Bill_Crofut 10:50 am 06/2/2014

    Re: “The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon dioxide and other pollutants that contribute to global climate change in 2007.”

    Since “climate change” seems to be the buzz phrase rapidly replacing “agw,” it’ll be interesting to learn how the members of the Supreme Court are going to grant those at EPA the ability to regulate climate (even if indirectly).

    Re: “Photo Credit: Photo of W.A. Parish Power Plant and a coal-filled train © Copyright roy luck and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence”

    There certainly must be more than meets the eye for that rather benign-looking scene to be the cause of the level of panic being promoted.

    StanleyP (comment 5) certainly has a valid point: “CO2 isn’t pollution its plant food.”

    It’ll be interesting to learn what provision(s) in the new regulations will ensure that enough CO2 remains to allow plants to survive in the frenzy to REGULATE (which would seem to be the real goal).

    Link to this
  15. 15. Postman1 4:12 pm 06/2/2014

    rkipling, I echo your comment #9. The SA on line site seems to have cut off all commenters who wont toe the AGW line. It falls right in with this : http://judithcurry.com/2014/05/24/are-climate-scientists-being-forced-to-toe-the-line/

    Link to this
  16. 16. Postman1 4:14 pm 06/2/2014

    CurvyRedHead Re your comment #4, The numbers of poor are now in the majority and growing. Soon there will be no one left to support them.

    Link to this
  17. 17. L1995 1:38 pm 06/8/2014

    @15,

    Ah yes, another moronic conspiracy theory.

    Hey, as part of the evil one world government agenda that controls the entire field of climatology and every single scientific institution of national or international standing, I’ll let you in on a little secret:

    Your neighbors dog is the secret ring leader.

    Link to this

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