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Obama Clean Power Plan Demands Emissions Reductions From States

File photo of the TransAlta Centralia Coal Plant.
Miriam Duerr
Washington Department of Ecology
File photo of the TransAlta Centralia Coal Plant.

The Obama administration set carbon dioxide limits for electric power plants Monday. The objective is to combat climate change by clamping down on power plant pollution, especially coal-fired electricity.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tailored state-specific targets to reduce the carbon intensity of electricity generation and promote renewable energy. Oregon officials said they are well positioned to meet their federal target because of increasing wind and solar power, conservation initiatives and the scheduled phase out of the one coal plant in the state.

"Hard to say whether we are already in compliance or not, but we certainly have a substantial head start toward 2030 compliance," Angus Duncan, chair of the Oregon Global Warming Commission, said on a conference call with reporters Monday.

Washington state is doing the same things as Oregon, including phasing out its only coal-fired power plant by 2025. But the Evergreen State was assigned a tougher target.

"The Northwest was ahead of most of the country to begin with. In some ways that could make compliance with the new plan even more challenging, because it's not like there is lots of low-hanging fruit," said Bruce Howard, who directs environmental affairs for Avista Utilities in Spokane.

Both Avista, which serves a broad swath of the Inland Northwest, and Puget Sound Energy said Monday that it is too early to say whether they would need to change course on the composition of their generating portfolios.

"It's a very complex situation," PSE spokesman Grant Ringel noted. He said his large utility has been "very aggressive" in developing wind farms. He cautioned that impacts on customer bills need to be considered along the way.

Washington Democratic Governor Jay Inslee called the new standards reasonable and economically-viable on Monday.

"We think that these are very achievable goals for the state of Washington. In the utility industry we have ways of doing it. I am so glad the president is showing leadership," Inslee said in Seattle. "He is asking Washington to do what we want to do anyway, which is to develop new sources of clean energy and reduce carbon pollution."

Idaho got a low target for emissions reductions, but also has limited options to make reductions because there are just a handful of natural gas power plants to work with in the state.

"Idaho has one of the more stringent state goals," notes an EPA fact sheet. This even though the emissions reduction demanded of Idaho is one of the smallest on a percentage basis.

The Obama Clean Power Plan sets interim carbon dioxide reduction goals from 2022-2029 and a final target to achieve by 2030. The final targets in the Northwest range from a 10 percent reduction in Idaho, 20 percent for Oregon, to 37 percent for Washington, in all cases starting from a 2012 baseline.

Nationwide, the power sector is the country's single largest source of climate warming emissions. However, that is not true in the Pacific Northwest where carbon-free hydropower accounts for a significant percentage of our electricity generation.

The transportation sector -- cars and trucks, chiefly -- is the biggest single source of carbon pollution in Washington and Oregon. The Obama administration's earlier initiative to require higher vehicle fuel efficiency addresses that sector. In Idaho, the agriculture sector is the single biggest carbon dioxide emitter according to data crunched by the World Resources Institute using 2012 figures.

The U.S. EPA issued more than 1,500 pages of rules and guidelines for the power sector on Monday, but it is leaving it to each state to craft a plan for how to achieve the demanded emissions reductions within its borders. Spokespeople for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and Washington State Department of Ecology said the public will be consulted during the development of the state strategies. Some states may choose to form regional blocs to provide more options and a possibly a bigger market to swap pollution reduction credits.

Already some Midwestern and Southern states have banded together to challenge the legality of the Obama carbon limits. These critics led by their state attorneys general contend the U.S. EPA has exceeded its authority.

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association raised concerns about the future reliability of the grid, rising electricity prices and jobs lost from "prematurely shuttered" power plants.

"Any increase in the cost of electricity most dramatically impacts those who can least afford it, and the fallout from the EPA's rule will cascade across the nation for years to come," NRECA CEO Jo Ann Emerson said in a prepared statement.

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KPLU Reporter Bellamy Pailthorp contributed to this report.

Copyright 2015 Northwest News Network